Should Antarctica be off-limits? On this ‘untouched’ landscape, how many visitors are too many? Asks Eloise Barker
Witnessing Antarctica is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But as visitor numbers rise, so do reports of worsening localised impacts. Should we travel here anymore?
“My trip to Antarctica was rescheduled five times in three years.”
Due to the pandemic, Abbie Redman’s once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica kept being postponed. During her time in limbo, did she reconsider whether she should have gone?
“Of course,” says Abbie, who works in travel, “I certainly thought about it a lot after I booked, about my impact on the place. But my other thought was – we can say this about anywhere – we impact everywhere we go.”
When Abbie finally set sail, in March 2023, Antarctica’s summer sea ice had reached a record low for the second consecutive year. The ice is melting at an unprecedented rate.
Are tourists a threat to Antarctica?
International news means all eyes are on the seventh continent – and visits are on the rise.
Visitors have increased by roughly 44 per cent between 2019-2020, when there were 73,670 visitors, and 2022-2023, when the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) predicted there would be 106,006. Back in 1991, when IAATO started monitoring numbers, there were just 6500.
As of 2021, visitors can fly into Antarctica from South Africa for a three-hour holiday on an Airbus A340, landing and taking off from a runway on the ice. So far, only a few hundred have – rates for the flight start at US$14,500. Those who want to stay longer can participate in increasingly adventurous activities – paddleboarding, submersibles, camping trips.
More arrivals mean more pollution. Ships release black carbon – which sits on snow and accelerates its melting; each visitor is responsible for dozens – perhaps even hundreds – of tons of premature snowmelt. Other concerns include biofouling – wildlife arriving in Antarctica clinging on to ships’ hulls – and passengers inadvertently bringing over seeds in their clothing – like grass seed stuck to the Velcro of their coats. Since tourists arrive from all over the world, Antarctica’s ecosystem, which until recently had no known invasive species, is vulnerable to damaging change.
Though most tours to Antarctica operate under strict protocols dictated by the IAATO, rising tourism increases incidents of broken rules – on Abbie’s tour, she saw guests ignoring red poles put up by guides to warn of sleeping seals.
But, of the threats to Antarctica, tourism is a drop in the ocean. Fisheries harvest krill – a keystone species – and toothfish in enormous quantities just beyond the protected zone, depleting food for the continent’s sea life. Plastics were discovered in Antarctica for the first time last year, in freshly fallen snow. And thanks to climate change, Antarctica is warming five times faster than the rest of the world. People don’t need to visit to have a devastating impact.
Leaving no trace in a melting continent
“The staff cleaned everything with hoovers. If you had the tiniest bit of thread caught in the Velcro of your clothes, it was removed with a needle.” Abbie has also visited the Galapagos Islands, but Antarctica’s protocols were on another level. “They were really, really strict. We were absolutely made to feel like the environment came first and our holiday second.”
Abbie travelled on a brand-new ship with a desalination plant, which recycled heat from its engine to warm the rooms, and had recycling compactors on board. But climate change wasn’t discussed.
Snowless areas went uncommented on, and penguins – which were supposed to be at sea – were still around on land. “There were moments where you felt that you could be seeing climate change but it wasn’t spoken about at all on the trip,” Abbie said.
Abbie was concerned about her impact – but there’s no ethics test to pass to travel to Antarctica. IAATO’s hopes that tourists will come away as “Antarctic Ambassadors” are over-optimistic. On Abbie’s tour, many guests ignored the guide’s instructions and had to be told off “like naughty schoolchildren”.
Should you visit Antarctica?
Visiting Antarctica remains a personal choice. “Some of the guides I spoke to had very strong opinions,” says Abbie, “Of course, they want to keep going – but they have colleagues that no longer do the job as the trips are not in fitting with their personal ethos.”
There’s an argument that visiting Antarctica stops it from being valued purely as a mineral resource, or a fishing ground; some tour operators support ongoing polar scientific research by providing supplies and data.
IAATO has not moved to put a cap on visitor numbers. Changes to tourism policy have to go through all 55 member states who have signed the Antarctic Treaty, which can slow and stall any efforts to put healthy restrictions on the tourism industry.
For Abbie, Antarctica’s beauty came from its purity.
“You were looking at these unbelievable landscapes, these pure untouched mountains without a footprint on them. I realised that I’d never seen mountains like that without ski tracks on them.”
If tourism is to continue here, it must remain considered and controlled, and leave no trace.
Tips for booking a responsible Antarctica holiday:
- The single most important thing you can do is ensure your tour operator is registered with IAATO.
- IAATO has its own travel advice page for Antarctica, including visitor briefing videos and guidelines.
- Modern ships are generally more ecologically sound. Vessels should use marine diesel, which is less polluting. Some vessels use supplementary battery power.
- Find tours that contribute to research, drop off supplies to scientists, or offer citizen science (chances for passengers to contribute to scientific data).
- Choose a smaller boat. These are less obtrusive and less impactful on any communities you visit on the way.
- The greatest threats to Antarctica are bigger than tourism – and can only be counteracted by campaigning for change at home.
Eloise Barker is a writer for Responsible Travel