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Antarctica Tourism Causing Major Concerns

December 21, 2009

The 40,000 ‘eco-tourists’ who visit the South Pole every year cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions. The visitors to the snow-covered landmass are endangering not just the Antarctic region by their actions, but also the rest of the world. Dutch researcher Machiel Lamers has investigated the impacts of increased tourism on Antarctica and how this impact could be curbed.

Tourism is a ‘boom industry’ in Antarctica. Where, a mere 20 years or so ago, just a few hundred tourists would set off towards the South Pole, more than 40,000 inquisitive souls journeyed to the southernmost point on Earth last winter. Then it was still summertime in Antarctica and the temperatures were bearable. While tourism has many advantages to offer the South Pole, the increasing influx causes horrendous pollution: the long trips made by many of the tourists produce shocking amounts of CO2 emission. Machiel Lamers visited the South Pole and discussed the fragile future of the continent with other interested parties.

Tour operators hold the reins

Lamers spoke to scientists, policy makers, environmental groups and tour operators. Antarctica appears to be facing major challenges. The local environment is under pressure, more and larger ships are going there, tourists are perpetually looking for ‘tougher, faster, more’ and there’s actually no-one to keep this all on the right tracks: the South Pole is managed by an international consortium of countries, but no-one is really in charge on the ground. There is no policy setting out any limits for tourism.

The nearest to anyone holding the reins are the tour operators. It is in their own interests not to have too many tourists coming at the same time: no-one goes to Antarctica to find six other shiploads of tourists there. Self-regulation is working well enough just now among the tour operators, but Lamers feels that the situation could easily change. The future is only likely to see even more people trying to get in on the action, and there’s a chance that not everyone will be prepared to make concessions.

Many scientists who have spent a long time at the Pole are already seeing the consequences of increased numbers of tourists. Poorly prepared tour operators can end up getting a nasty surprise and, in the absence of breakdown services or the police, it’s often the scientists – and better-prepared tour operators – who have to come to the rescue of tourists in distress, with all the consequences this has on their own work.

Long-term planning

Lamers believes that clear steps must be taken soon. The countries involved, including the Netherlands, must move rapidly to prepare a long-term plan. Lamers outlines a number of detailed future scenarios that might support this. For instance, what should happen if someone wants to build on a commercial basis in Antarctica? And who is responsible for stranded tourists?

The research done by Lamers shows that it is time for clear rules; vague agreements are not enough any more. Why, for example, do the same rules apply to the Antarctic Peninsula as to the Ross Sea? And how many tourists can Antarctica actually cope with?

The research by Machiel Lamers was funded by NWO and formed part of the Netherlands Polar Program, an initiative to encourage outstanding scientific research in the polar regions.

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