Antarctica is the most pristine environment on our planet. A harsh landscape of ice, wind and rock, where only the hardiest of creatures survive. Although not accessible in winter, during summer, the Antarctic Peninsula is a beautiful wilderness, where travellers can meet penguins, photograph whales and witness elephant seals the size of a car! It’s easy to see, therefore, why discerning cruise travellers wish to visit such a unique place.
Sadly though, Antarctica is also one of the most fragile landscapes on the planet. With the expedition cruise industry on the rise, it’s important to understand the effects that the cruise industry is having on the environment.
IAATO and Safeguarding the Environment
This is a question that has plagued experts and scientists for some time. In 2009, mega cruise liners carrying over 1,000 passengers were banned from visiting Antarctica for fears of an oil spill or similar environmental disaster.
Even today, ships carrying over 500 are very rare. The simple reason for this is that no more than 100 people are allowed ashore at once during an Antarctic cruise. This rule was put into place by International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) in order to help safeguard the environment and to protect Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem.
All cruise operators are also bound to a small portion of the Antarctic Peninsula and must book pre-approved sites in advance to reduce their impact upon the land.
There are set walking areas and no person can move to within a certain distance of the wildlife. Thanks to these regulations, the 35,000 passengers who visit Antarctica every season aren’t currently producing a negative effect.
Despite this, the leading NGO in the Antarctica region – the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition – are concerned that this may not last. Claire Christian, executive director of the coalition, states that, “Tourism is currently well managed, but the status quo may not last forever.”
Raising Awareness Through First-hand Travel Experiences
However, Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, believes that tourism is vitally important to Antarctica and the last thing the continent needs is a ban on visitors. “To keep some places on earth out of bounds for tourism will often simply obscure challenges. Tourists can be witnesses to the ongoing changes in the Antarctic waters caused by climate change – to see and learn for themselves, and to further help raise awareness when they get home. It is a good thing.”
Ironically, it seems that the scientists working in Antarctica are causing more damage than the tourists themselves. Scientists face far less regulation, especially when it comes to area restrictions and pollution, and have also inadvertently introduced non-native species to the continent. With over 40 permanent research stations and roughly 4000 researchers calling Antarctica home each season, it’s easy to see how these places could have a bigger impact than tourism.
Valuable Work in the White Continent
On the other hand, the work that researchers and scientists do while living on the White Continent is exceptionally valuable. Wildlife migration, sea currents and global warming issues are all studied in detail and the findings are often breathtaking. The unspoilt environment allows glaciologists to extract tubes of ice deposits, thousands of years old, which can reveal climatic patterns and cycles in order to predict future climate changes.
Kevin Hughes, environmental research and monitoring manager for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), states that, “Until all Antarctic Treaty nations engage with their monitoring obligations and develop a co-ordinated, continent-wide view of human impacts, the environment of Antarctica will remain under threat.”
While tourism is expected to grow in Antarctica over the coming years, few people are concerned by this. “We think this is sustainable, with some room for further growth,” says Amanda Lynnes, IAATO communications and environmental officer. “Over the past 50 years, there has been virtually no discernible impact on the Antarctic environment by tourism. Continued monitoring is vital, however, and IAATO continues to work with Antarctic Treaty parties to improve it.”
One of the main reasons for the lack of concern is the fact that tourists are actually restricted to a total area of just two square km (0.77 square miles).
However, IAATO are the first to say that, thanks to climate change, the real effect of cruise tourism in Antarctica is very difficult to assess. The Antarctic Peninsula is melting at an alarming rate and this has skewered much of the data.
For now though, the future of Antarctic tourism seems strong…
Author: Tamlyn Ryan
Content writer by day and blogger by night, Tamlyn Ryan passionately runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust, from her home base of Cape Town, South Africa. And, despite a national diploma in Journalism, in her free time, Tamlyn’s preferred niche remains travel writing.
Tamlyn is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and, above all else, an innate love for the great outdoors.