With tourism in Antarctica on a rise, researchers and conservation organizations argue for stronger measures to safeguard the environment of Antarctica from the potential negative impacts of tourism.
While the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and The Madrid Protocol provide a regulatory framework for activities in Antarctica, including tourism, gaps exist in the existing governance frameworks that need to be addressed, said UNEP.
Under the current system, day-to-day management of tourism activities is primarily self-regulated by the industry itself, with guidance provided by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). While IAATO has established guidelines and best practices for its members, concerns augment about the adequacy of self-regulation in protecting Antarctica’s unique wildlife and ecosystems.
Since the early 1990s, tourism in Antarctica has grown continually. Between 1992 and 2020, the number of tourists arriving increased ten-fold, rising to 75,000 in the 2019-20 season and again to 104,897 in the 2022-23 season. Tourist activities can also cause damage at visitor sites and along travel routes, and disturb wildlife. For example, research has shown that tourist activities are causing penguin species to change their reproductive and social behaviours.
The remote and fragile nature of Antarctica makes it particularly vulnerable to the impacts of tourism. Large numbers of tourists visiting sensitive areas can disturb wildlife, introduce invasive species, contribute to pollution, and cause physical damage to the environment. Climate change and the associated melting of ice in the region also present new challenges and potential risks for tourism activities.
ADDRESSING THE CONCERN
To address these concerns, there have been calls for stronger regulations, increased monitoring, and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Some propose expanding role of international bodies like Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) and Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP). They feel these can play a more active role in overseeing tourism activities. This involves setting limits on the number of visitors, restricting access to certain areas. Moreover, it also encompasses implementing mandatory environmental impact assessments, and enhancing compliance monitoring.
Furthermore, collaboration between the tourism industry, scientific community, and environmental organizations is essential to develop sustainable tourism practices that prioritize the protection of Antarctica’s unique ecosystems and minimize the negative impacts. By working together, it is possible to strike a balance between allowing tourism in Antarctica and preserving its pristine environment for future generations.
Science-based decision-making: Decisions regarding tourism should be informed by scientific research and best practices. Projections of tourism and climate trends should be considered in management plans.
Stakeholder cooperation: Collaboration among stakeholders is crucial. This includes the tourist industry (such as IAATO and its members), researchers, conservation organizations, and governments involved in national Antarctic programs.
Research and evaluation: More research is needed to inform policies and implementation of management approaches. The ecological impacts of tourist activities at local and regional levels should be studied. Existing guidelines and compliance should be assessed. Identifying gaps in current protections is important.
New safeguards: Stronger protections may be required within the Antarctic Treaty System. Also need specific management plans for Antarctic protected areas. These safeguards could include specifying the appropriate type, amount, location, and route of tourism activities.
Monitoring and assessment: Continual monitoring of tourism impacts is necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of new protections. Governments, research funders, and the tourism industry should support monitoring programs and coordinate research activities. Indicators should go beyond visitor numbers and assess wider impacts on Antarctica’s biodiversity, wilderness, and ecosystem services.
Positive impacts of tourism: Efforts should be made to leverage tourism as a conservation tool. Conservation education can be incorporated into visitors’ schedules. Tourists can be involved in citizen science programs where they contribute to research projects by gathering data.
Evaluation of long-term behavior: Researchers should evaluate how visiting Antarctica influences tourists’ long-term behaviour, including their attitudes towards environmental conservation.