No place in the earth can be compared with Antarctica, the last great wilderness of the planet. Tourism in this frozen continent is an unconventional experience. Its spectacular pristine icy landscape and the endless list of iconic fauna are attracting thousands of discerning travelers.
What would be the impacts of tourism on Antarctica?
Should tourism continue in this land? These are haunting the minds of environmentalists. As long as Antarctica remained beyond the reach of humans, there was nothing to be concerned of. But this is no more the scenario. The rising tourism activities and scientific exploration in this continent are posing serious threats to its sustainability.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) reports of 38,478 visitors traveling to Antarctica in 2015-16, a number up by 5% compared to the previous year. This is estimated to jump to 44,000 the next season with some 10,000 not to set foot on the unspoiled landmass.
Tourism regulation in Antarctica:
Tourism in Antarctica is self-regulated by IAATO established in 1991 with 122 members as of now. The organization enforces strict guidelines to its tour operators and ships limiting the size of the ships and the number of travelers that can land on Antarctica at a given time.
In terms of preservation of this pristine land, efforts by IAATO have been successful till date. But the rising concerns pertaining to tourist experience and preservation of the environment call for a cap on the number of visitors.
A few years back, Antarctic scientists issued a warning stating a surge in tourism in the frozen continent has been a growing threat to the environment. Given the effects of climate change on the extremely biodiverse and climatically vulnerable Antarctica, it is not easy to assess the impacts of tourism on Antarctica.
7 – Possible harmful impacts of tourism on Antarctica:
Passenger polar cruise vessels are increasingly taking voyages to the end of the world. While it seems tourism activities are only few compared to that in the rest of the world, it is here where humans are never at the best control of themselves. Therefore, intensifying human activities are bound to have a detrimental effect on the environment’s sustainability.
However, one can make a fair judgment of the harmful impacts of tourism on Antarctica. This would help to apprehend future problems and detect the probable solutions.
1. The ‘high-impact’ time of tourists landing in the continent:
Compared to a scientist spending most of their time on a permanent or semi-permanent base, a few hours spent by the tourist create a much higher impact. Tourists are likely to explore the most beautiful and wildlife infested areas of the continent with small boats.
Therefore, most of the tourist landings concentrated over a small area roughly 1% of the total mass create a higher impact. Furthermore, cruise liners carry more tourists in a single voyage than those on expedition or research.
2. Tourism season coinciding with the breeding season:
The harmful impacts of tourism on Antarctica can be felt as the tourism season coincides with the breeding season. This creates a high possibility of disturbing the local fauna. Antarctica is the home to 20 million breeding penguins. They may not get the right ambience for mating which in near future may threaten their existence on the planet.
3. Higher chances of an oil spill from shipping activity:
The heightened shipping activity of tour ships during the touring season creates greater possibilities of accidents and oil-spills. There have been previous incidents of ships being grounded leading to oil spills. Even with the best safe-guards complying with the marine regulations for Antarctic ships, more the number of ships greater would be the number of accidents.
4. Smaller expeditions creating bigger threats to the environment:
Smaller expeditions led by individuals and small parties are increasing day by day. The continent needs to set up foolproof rescue procedures if anybody experiences any difficulty. Small parties generally fail to maintain their safety standards and seek humanitarian requests in case of any disaster. Moreover, there is no surety regarding removing the derelicts and crashed vehicles to keep the land clean.
5. Accidentally depositing invasive species on the pristine land:
Another harmful impact of tourism on Antarctica is the accidental introduction of foreign invasive species like insects or seeds through clothes and boots on this unspoiled land. A high level of awareness exists where passengers are advised to vacuum their clothing and sterilize boots and waterproof jackets. Still, an accidental miss can endanger the environment.
6. Enhanced land erosion:
A lot of feet movement on the same place of this ice-covered land will create paths and other scars. And this is happening. Only responsible tourism allowing a restricted number of travelers can check this erosion.
7. Other impacts of human invasion:
These may include:
- Over harvesting of some species on the verge of extinction
- Contaminating the land with soiled boots, clothing and left over trash.
- Discharging waste and sewage in the ocean waters.
To what extent Antarctica has been affected by tourism?
According to an IAATO official, there has been no discernible harmful impact of tourism on Antarctica for last 50 years. For example, researchers from various scientific organizations regularly visit the penguin colonies. These creatures are never touched but a close encounter happens.
Studies related to frequently visited colonies have brought inconclusive results with some doing worse, same or even better! Researchers say that global warming is changing the penguins’ fortune more than tourism activities.
Apart from tourism, there is detectable environmental pollution from scientific research but confirming data is yet to be collected to ascertain which activity, tourism or scientific exploration, is causing more harm.
Should tourism continue in Antarctica?
Responsible tourism is beneficial for this land. Not all can afford a trip to Antarctica but a selected few from the affluent and well-educated class well above the average tourists. They tend to be good influencers and can be the brand ambassadors of Antarctica. They can lend their strong voice on behalf of this continent if there are some undesirable efforts of mineral and resource extraction.
The continent is sitting on a huge oil reserve estimated to be between 50 billion and 203 billion barrels (more than the collective reserve of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi) and natural gas reserve of about 106 trillion cubic feet. It is urgent to monitor the growth and diversification of tourism in Antarctica.
The member nations of the treaty need to be more proactive and come to a consensus in creating a comprehensive and long-term vision. The member nations providing a continent wise view of human impacts may help in mitigating the problems and devise new solutions to protect this land from environmental threats.