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Tourism in Antarctica: what does it mean for the world's last great wilderness?

Tourism in Antarctica is set to increase. But what does this mean for the world's last great wilderness?

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:20 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 10:25 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

"Colour! That's what I miss most," says a grad student researcher at Palmer Station, oblivious to the irony of the perfect double rainbow that today frames the US Antarctic Program outpost. "When I last returned to the USA and saw billboards and neon signs, I was overwhelmed. You just don't see colour down here."

Today I see plenty of colour. Mostly orange. The day-glo orange parkas of a group of cruise ship visitors milling around what has to be the world's most southerly gift shop, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers in an array of lurid hues. As isolated as it is, this research station is clearly set up for tourist arrivals, with tight-lipped senior researchers acting as sales clerks, while post-graduate students enthusiastically talk to me about the local insects.

Antarctica, the only continent with no native population, is a place for academic cooperation between all nations: a place for science. It's also increasingly a place for tourism.

Once the preserve of researchers, whalers and polar explorers, entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered tourist trips to the White Continent by sea in the 1960s. Today, 65 ships are registered with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), and in the 2015-16 season there were 38,478 visitors, on tours that typically lasted between 10-30 days.

It looks as though 2018 is going to see a spike in visitors, though. Argentina's state-owned airline LADE is reportedly launching the first regular commercial flights to the White Continent this year. The flights, from Ushuaia in Argentina to Antarctica's Marambio Base — a research station that's being developed to receive commercial flights and accommodate visitors — will take just 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Chinese media is talking about the country's own Hainan Airlines organising its first trip to the South Pole after a commercial aircraft carrying 22 Chinese passengers landed in Antarctica on 16 December 2017. The international coverage will likely spark a new travel trend with Chinese tourists.

All this means that, rather than making a two-week-plus commitment, travellers could now find the South Pole manageable in a long weekend, which theoretically opens the continent up to mass tourism.

With no local communities on Antarctica, it's hard to see how it'll benefit from more visitors. "The rate of climate change around the Antarctic Peninsula is rapid," says John Durban, a British killer whale researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "Increasing tourism obviously means burning more fossil fuels here."

The two biggest visitors to Antarctica are the US and China. US President Donald Trump went on record in 2015, saying: "I don't believe in climate change." In 2012, he said, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese." Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and called for an 11% cut to the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget.

"The days when scientists just waited for money from Congress are gone," says Durban, who's conducting research in Antarctica as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions. "But we can bring a small team on commercial ships and get help from everyone: tourists sharing their photographs of whales is invaluable to our research. We've published a number of scientific papers in which most of the data was collected onboard."

So, while flying trips to the Antarctic may do the continent little good, there's something to be said for slow travel there.

As I leave Palmer Station, and return to the ship, one researcher confides: "If you felt like the senior scientists were avoiding you, don't feel bad: they got an email from the NSF telling them not to discuss climate change with journalists." It seems there really is only one land of the free, and it's covered by ice — for now.

Antarctica Q&A

So nobody owns Antarctica?
The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 designated Antarctica as a military-free zone, banning nuclear tests and radioactive waste disposal, and setting aside disputes over territorial sovereignty. However, some scientists believe research bases are there in part to earmark territories for nations in the event that Antarctica is ever mined for its natural resources.

Are there rules to protect Antarctica from tourism?
Founded by seven private tour operators in 1991, IAATO promotes safe and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic by limiting visitor numbers allowed ashore.

Are there upsides to Antarctic tourism?
John Durban from NOAA says, "There's a great benefit to taking people to places like Antarctica and hoping they return as ambassadors for its future."

What about fishing?
In December 2017, Antarctica's Ross Sea was protected from commercial fishing for 35 years.

Is Antarctica doomed?
When Starbucks arrives, yes.

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