Tourism in Antarctica has increased significantly in recent decades, from a few hundred in the 1970s to 75,000 visitors during the 2019-2020 tourism season. IAATO (The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) expects the figures to exceed 100,000 in the coming years. While this growth in visitors has established a strong cruise ship industry, which provides the majority of transportation to and from the continent, it has also raised environmental concerns for the continent itself.
Human activity in Antarctica falls under the governance of ATS (the Antarctic Treaty system), an international cooperation that dates back to 1959. Twelve countries in Washington signed it. For tourism management, IAATO was formed in 1991 by seven companies. As stated on IAATO’s website, The primary goal of the association is to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic”. But the booming tourism industry in Antarctica demands a change to protect this region’s value as wilderness.
With the first record landing made by Captain James Cook in 1773, it wasn’t till the early 1990s, as ex-Soviet icebreakers, a ship designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters, became available for the public that tourism started. With just a dozen companies offering trips at that time, the number of companies responding to accommodate visitors has risen to 102 under the IAATO umbrella from around the world.
The booming tourism in the Antarctic could put pressure on an environment that has already been threatened by climate change in recent years, as reported by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. Snow has a higher ability to absorb carbon dioxide and other gases from ship exhaust, darkening their surface and making them absorb more heat from the environment, speeding up the affected land’s melting process and raising the sea level.
With the rising number of tourists, dumping grey water (bath, shower laundry, and gallery water) in the Southern Ocean is another issue. Grey water contains chemical detergents, heavy metals, fecal coliforms, and many other harmful particles which can harm the marine ecosystems in the Ocean. With 99% of the continent covered in ice, the remaining is ice-free, providing a virtual environment for plants, seabirds, and insects to flourish.
Since most tourists are attracted to these biodiverse but vulnerable ice-free regions, it threatens this already in-crisis ecosystem. Not only tourists but the invasive species like algae or barnacles attached to the ship pose another threat to this delicate marine ecosystem, which can be introduced through biofouling.
Many tourists travel to Antarctica for its untouched, pristine and natural environment with the opportunity to see wildlife such as seals, bears, and penguins in their natural habitat. IAATO has put strong protections in place to protect wildlife with the introduction of strict instructions for the visitors, such as disinfecting their boots and vacuuming their pockets before landing on ice while keeping a certain distance from wildlife to prevent any introduction of new species on the continent.
On the other hand, advocacy organizations like ASOC have been a strong voice in regulating Antarctica’s tourism. In 2011, the use of heavy fuel oil was banned under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships. While positives in the face of the rising popularity of this region are imperative, it is not clear what measures ATS (Antarctic Treaty System) parties will take and how quickly they ought to act.
“At the end of the day, we’re all a bunch of competitors,” said Bob Simpson, a former IAATO executive committee chair. “But it’s in our best interest to work together and cooperate to ensure this extraordinary place is protected for future generations.”