Antarctica might not be the first destination the average traveller has in their plans, but it most certainly is on some bucket lists. Possibilities of reaching the iced continent are on the rise and so is tourism.
Author of “Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel”, Sara Clemence, argus in an article for the Atlantic that, in the absence of any governmental authority to monitor over the continent and faced with the increasing effects of climate change, Antarctica should be closed off to tourists.
1. The last place on Earth
Having been somewhat inaccessible to humans for centuries and only recently opened to tourism, Antarctica has an allure that few other places on Earth can offer – pristine, untouched wilderness. Similarly to space or deep dive tourism, visitors are drawn to the novelty of visiting not only the unique frozen landscape, but also a place where few others have ventured before. The “last chance tourism” aspect, the idea of visiting a place that will soon disappear due to climate change, further spikes interest in the destination.
It is singular, and in its relative wildness and silence, it is the last of its kind.Sara Clemence
Clemence argues that it is exactly for this reason tourists should be banned from the continent, as their increased presence threatens the delicate environment they step into. Last summer, 100,000 tourists arrived in Antarctica, mostly by cruises, a 40% increase compared to pre-pandemic levels and incomparable to the mere few hundred visitors the continent got over the summer 4 decades ago.
2. Carbon footprint
Antarctica cannot be reached by trains or public transport, there are no environmentally friendly transport alternatives. There are only two options, planes and cruises, both needing to cross thousands of kilometres to reach the continent’s shores, burning tanks-full of fuel on the way. The carbon footprint of a person taking a cruise to Antarctica is comparable to the yearly emissions of an average European, Clemence says.
One company opened a luxury camp, only reachable by private jet, last year, even offering couples looking for something extra special the opportunity to get married in the middle of the white desert. “Guests, who pay at least $65,000 a stay, are encouraged to explore the continent by plane, Ski-Doos, and Arctic truck before enjoying a gourmet meal whose ingredients are flown in from South Africa. All of this adds up”, the writer explains.
In 2021, the world’s largest iceberg, with a surface are of 4,320 km2, broke off from the western side of the Ronne Ice Shelf, lying in the continent’s Weddell Sea. Last year, scientists predicted an alarming record decline in Antarctica’s sea ice cover, researchers showing that pollution from increased human activity in the South Pole darkened the snow, causing it to melt sooner than usual near research facilities and popular tourist sites.
3. Impact on local ecosystem
Being such a secluded environment, the ecosystem in Antarctica can be easily disturbed by alien species. Tourists can easily bring new viruses and bacteria to the environment and even invasive species that could completely throw the local biome out of balance. It would not be the first time humans arriving on a new continent accidentally contribute to the destruction of native species. Although the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) says tourists are asked to “decontaminate their shoes to keep novel bugs and bacteria at bay” before stepping off cruises, it seems like just a matter of time before a slight oversee potentially causes a disaster. Not to mention that membership to IAATO is voluntary and not all agencies offering visits to the South Pole are part of the association.
Moreover, hikers can stomp over native vegetation flora that takes up to decades to grow in the harsh environment of Antarctica, which is not just home to the coldest places on Earth, but is also the driest continent on our planet, getting as little precipitation, rain or snow, as the world’s hottest deserts.
Human presence has also been shown to stress out penguins, having an impact on their breeding patterns, while the increased cruise traffic can affect whale migration patterns and breeding grounds.
4. Disappearing oasis
Antarctica doesn’t need ambassadors; it needs guardians.Sara Clemence
“Some argue that tourists become ambassadors for the continent—that is, for its protection and for environmental change. That’s laudable, but unsupported by research, which has shown that in many cases Antarctic tourists become ambassadors for more tourism”, Clemence criticises. “Putting this land off-limits would signify how fragile and important—almost sacred—it is. Putting it at risk to give deep-pocketed tourists a sense of awe is simply not worth it.”
There is a sad irony in Antarctica’s fate. Its innate appeal is what ultimately contributes to its destruction. “Maybe, despite our deepest impulses to explore, we can leave one place in the world alone”, the writer concludes.