Responsible tourism in Antarctica

Antarctica is the only continent without a government – and this has seemingly fostered a sense of shared responsibility for the earth’s last true wilderness. While several nations have sketched wedge-shaped slices onto maps of the ice sheet, claiming them for their own, the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, agreed that no claims would be recognised, ending the threat of conflict over this uninhabitable land. Military and mining activities are prohibited in the treaty, yet as a “scientific preserve”, Antarctica is open to those wishing to carry out research.

In a rather utopian vision of cooperation and environmental concern, annual meetings between the countries discuss scientific collaborations, the threats facing the continent and how to manage the growing tourism industry. This government-free land ironically seems to be one of the best managed in the world. It has never experienced war, and its delicate environment is wholly protected – an unprecedented step. Any travelers to Antarctica will be made aware of the fragility of the polar ecosystems, as one of the privileged few to set foot on the earth’s final frontier.

Wildlife & environment

Should I visit Antarctica?

When it comes to responsible tourism in Antarctica, many environmentalists would argue that the only truly green course of action is... not to go. In many long-haul destinations, responsible tourism can play a huge role in community development and conservation which we believe offsets the environmental cost of flying – but with no permanent inhabitants, this is not the case in Antarctica. So – how can the flight be justified?

Although activities south of the polar circle are highly regulated, Antarctica remains at the mercy of activities taking place thousands of miles to the north. The climate crisis is without doubt the biggest threat facing Antarctica. Temperatures have risen here much faster than across the rest of the globe – by almost 3°C in just 50 years.

As the fringes of the continent hover around freezing, these few degrees could mean the difference between ice and no ice – and for wildlife this is a very important difference indeed. Glaciers are rapidly retreating and an estimated 25,000km² of ice has vanished. Rising sea temperatures affect the tiniest of sea creatures such as krill – and effects on their numbers are seen all the way up the food chain to seals and whales. Native plants are thriving in places that have previously been too icy to take root in and the chances of non-native plants joining them, unbalancing the fragile ecosystem, is rapidly increasing.

But while it is true that a flight to Buenos Aires, Ushuaia or Antarctica will contribute to the climate crisis, so will every other flight you take, every car journey you make and every bit of food you eat that has travelled from a distant farm. They all contribute to the melting of polar ice, and they all also contribute to the altered rainfalls, drought and hurricanes across the world as a whole. So it is wrong to link your Antarctic flights exclusively with the melting poles – and it is equally wrong to ignore all the other carbon emissions you create when thinking about how to reduce your impact on Antarctica.

This leads us to the dilemma that every traveler to the poles faces. There is no easy alternative to flying and – unlike other choices we can make in our lives (choosing renewable energy over fossil fuels, Fairtrade over regular coffee, and local over shipped-in food) – there is no magic low carbon aviation fuel available right now.

With a lack of alternatives, it is also remarkable, given the importance of global warming to all our futures, that no effective global mechanism to ensure CO² levels are reduced has ever been implemented. The Paris Agreement climate treaty has prompted some progress, but the most polluting nations aren’t making changes fast enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

So the choice is left to you as a personal one: to go or not to go?

What you can do

“Seeing a place free of pollution, garbage and hunters was fantastic and helped shape my opinions on environmentalism.” – our traveler Stephen Kohn about his Antarctic vacation

Most of our customers who have travelled to Antarctica have described themselves as deeply moved by its peace and pristine landscapes. Climate change, nature’s fragility and the urgency of protecting it suddenly hit home, and an expedition to Antarctica really can prove to be life-changing. In a land where there are no local voices to shout about their cause, tourists have an important role to play as representatives and ambassadors for this final wilderness.

There is also the worrying prospect that the Antarctic Treaty System can be tweaked in 2048, potentially allowing nations waiting in the wings to lay claim to parts of the continent which, under the rapidly melting ice, is a platter of mineral and fuel resources. Tourism could prove to be an economic benefit that incentivises protecting Antarctica from mining.

But for now, if you do decide to go to Antarctica, perhaps the most pressing question is: what changes can you make in your life to reduce your carbon footprint and lobby for effective global regulation of carbon?

You can also read more on our founder Justin’s thoughts on whether we should travel to Antarctica.
Charlotte Caffrey is a marine scientist and a co-founder of our Antarctica expedition partner Aqua-Firma. She regularly lectures on Antarctic and Arctic voyages, and has seen the impact this journey can have on travelers: “Through the lectures and talks we are informing people – showing people how glaciers are calving. And then we look at the reduction in ice over however many years and how it’s melting. It’s an educational process. You want people to go away as ambassadors, and a lot of them do. A lot of these voyages are quite life-changing. We’ve had people go home and change their car to an electric car – or change their profession even. And that means a lot, to touch people in that way.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Antarctica or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

How is tourism controlled in Antarctica?

Antarctica’s biggest industry is tourism, with over 56,000 visitors per year, some 10,000 of whom will only cruise or fly without setting foot on land. Currently, most of this tourism is concentrated in just 2 percent of the Antarctic – the Antarctic Peninsula – and is spread over just five months of the year, so effects on the environment and wildlife are unavoidable.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was created in 1991 to represent operators offering Antarctic tours. Working alongside the Antarctic Treaty, IAATO promotes safe, respectful travel in the region, with strictly enforced codes of conduct to avoid causing any damage to the environment. Member operators must comply with these regulations in an effort to preserve the landscape that their passengers are traveling so far to see.

What you can do
Ensure your tour operator is registered with IAATO (all of our partners who run our vacations are) and most of the work is done for you. They should send you comprehensive trip notes before your expedition begins – and once on board, guides will explain the various rules and regulations associated with Antarctic travel. Strict as this may sound, most visitors find it fascinating and are keen to do their bit to protect the environment.

Download IAATO’s travel advice for more information.

Responsible tourism tips

Keep your distance from the wildlife, including seals, penguins and other birds. However, the animals themselves aren’t aware of these regulations, and are also not afraid of humans. If you position yourself quietly, they may well approach you, which is fine. However, you must never touch, feed or obstruct them or use flash photography, and noise should be kept to a minimum. Contamination by “alien matter” is a real threat to fragile Antarctic and subantarctic ecosystems in the form of seeds, plants and foreign bacteria. Boats will provide special boots which must be worn during shore visits, which are disinfected between each excursion to reduce the chances of contamination. Never take anything away from Antarctica (e.g. rocks, plants or shells) and don’t leave anything behind. Some of the islands have coverings of moss and lichen as well as megaherbs. These are unique, and some – particularly lichen – can take decades to grow back, so don’t pick, step on or damage them in any way. Many tourist ships offer assistance to researchers and scientists traveling between South America and Antarctica – the two industries work together and support each other.  The albatross is, sadly, threatened by long-line fishing. They swallow the hooks embedded in the fish and are dragged underwater, where they drown. Support the RSPB’s albatross campaign to promote simple solutions which can prevent albatross from swallowing baited hooks. To support more general Antarctic research, including monitoring climate change, you can make a donation to the Scott Polar Research Institute. Most vessels have expert guides onboard – wildlife photographers and filmmakers, divers, geologists, polar scientists, historians and geographers. These are an unbelievable source of information – travelers are advised to make the most of it!
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ondrej Prosicky] [Charlotte Caffrey quote: Christopher Michel]