There has been a steady increase in the numbers of tourists to Antarctica over the last 20 years.
Most tourists come to the Antarctic Peninsula. The reasons for the increase in tourist numbers include:
Tourism is a growing industry.
Media has made people more aware of extreme environments.
There are more flexible patterns of work.
Air travel is more economically viable, and can be booked more conveniently over the internet.
There has been a trend towards ecotourism [ecotourism: Tourism which aims to be environmentally friendly.] or adventure tourism [adventure tourism: Tourism which aims to give an unusual experience.] .
People have more disposable income [disposable income: The income available for spending after taxes. ] .
The threat of climate change and environmental issues means some tourists want to go to locations before they change.
As the ice retreats more routes into Antarctica are opened up, allowing greater access for cruise ships.
Whether tourism should be allowed is a big question. This table shows some of the pros and cons:
|There are many guidelines in place, so the environmental impact can be minimised.||The ecosystem is very fragile, and too many people will disrupt the delicate balance it has. It can take many years to recover, if at all.|
|The awareness of the unique environment is increased as people are able to visit it.||If larger ships come, tourist numbers will increase.|
|There has been no conclusive evidence that tourism so far has disturbed breeding patterns of wildlife like penguins.||Tourists, along with research scientists, may unknowingly bring seeds and spores of plants from other areas.|
|Tour operators have voluntary codes of conduct to minimise the impacts – including not going within five metres of wildlife.||There is the threat of pollution, eg oil spills from the cruise ships and other methods of transport. This happened in 2007.|
|Tourists learn about the marine biology and threats because of climate change – they may become ambassadors for the area.|
What is extreme tourism?
Extreme environments are spread across the globe and cover a wide range of locations including mountains, deserts, rainforests, caves and ice covered terrain. Adventure activities involve an element of risk and people often chose such a trip for the adrenaline rush. Examples include ice-diving in the White Sea, north Russia, with almost freezing temperatures, and travelling across the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation in Ukraine, the area devastated by nuclear contamination in 1986. In Jamaica such activities include climbing waterfalls and cliff-diving. Adventure tourism is one of the fastest-growing types of tourism in the world.
The target market
Little investment is needed to set up such trips. The usual costly expenses of building hotels and roads are irrelevant. Part of the experience is to sleep 'rough' and travel over untouched landscapes. This tourism sector is growing rapidly in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Northern Pakistan is one of the most mountainous and difficult landscapes in the world and even its risky political situation as the base of Al Qaeda terrorists adds a thrill for some.
Small-scale tourism began in Antarctica in the 1950s when commercial
shipping began to take a few passengers. The first specially designed cruise
ship made its first voyage in 1969. Some 9,000 tourists in 1992-93 have now
grown to 37,000 in 2006-7 and to 46,000 in 2007-8. This is thousands more than
the scientific workers and their support staff who are there temporarily for
research purposes. Over 100 tourist companies are involved. In 2006, 38.9% of
visitors were American, 15.4% British, 10.3% German and 8.4% Australian.
Tourists from the northern hemisphere usually fly to New Zealand or Argentina,
taking their cruise ship onwards for one or two weeks. Smaller boats take them
ashore at key locations for short visits, mainly to the peninsula or nearby
The environmental impact of an individual tourist is much greater than that of a
researcher. Landing sites are chosen for a special feature, so they quickly
become honeypots. More than 99% of Antarctica is covered with ice, so little is
left for tourist activity. Few visitors go on the ice.
Tourists only spend a short time ashore, but the impacts do not always reflect this. They want to visit the most picturesque and wildlife-rich areas. The impact is uneven but in places too great. Animals, especially penguins and seals, are disturbed by
more than a few people. Not used to humans, they do not like to be touched. If
they leave as a result, they may abandon eggs and young.
There have been accidents when ships have struck uncharted rocks or ice floes.
The great majority of shipping in Antarctic waters is tourist-based. Oil spills
are becoming an increasing hazard for wildlife. Tourist ships must discharge all
waste materials well away from the shore of Antarctica.
All tour operators are members of IAATO, which directs tourism to be safe and
environmentally friendly. Around 100 companies are involved. In line with the
Antarctic Treaty, tourism is an acceptable activity in Antarctica - it is the
scale that has to be controlled. Visitors are not allowed to visit Sites of
Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in order to conserve precious wildlife and
landscapes. Bird Island on South Georgia is one example.
Although tourist numbers have increased rapidly in Antarctica, protection remains a
priority. A permit must be gained for any activities on the continent. No ship
carrying over 500 passengers can land in Antarctica. Never the less, there is
concern that larger ships will eventually be allowed to land and that the volume
of tourists will be beyond sustainable limits.