The dangers of the growing wave of tourism in Antarctica

The dangers of the growing wave of tourism in Antarctica LA NACION

More people than ever are visiting the frozen continent, Has the idea of ​​Antarctic tourism become unethical? It was an impressive image: a Boeing 787 Dreamliner parked on the ice of Antarctica and smiling flight attendants in knee-length dresses posed in front of the plane.

The photo was taken on the occasion of the first landing one of the largest aircraft in the world on an icy runway and snow at the end of last year seems to symbolize a new phase in Antarctic tourism.

Fortunately, the flight in question was carrying personnel and supplies for a research mission (unlike a 2021 Airbus A340 flight that landed in 2021). the Antartida Transporting supplies for an exclusive adventure camp). However, The journey to the southernmost continent on earth has reached a new milestone.

It is estimated that The number of visitors will reach 100,000 for the first time this tourist season (October 2023 – March 2024), an increase of 40% from the previous record. This brings new urgency to the question of how much, or no, tourism should be allowed on the frozen continent.

“That number really set alarm bells ringing.”said Claire Christian, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an alliance of non-governmental organizations that has been working to protect Antarctica for more than 40 years. “Now We see that there is an urgent need to properly manage this industry and its impact on a very fragile and rapidly changing environment.”

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (Iaato) currently lists 95 ships in its directory, including 21 yachts that carry wealthy tourists to a destination on the “final frontier,” a place – according to one operator – “so untouched and remote, that you can hear it.” the snowflakes fall into the water.”

Some boats carry more than 400 tourists at a timeand usually start from the tip of South America towards the Antarctic Peninsula, which protrudes northwards from the West Antarctic ice mass.

With the increase in competition Operators offer new tourist activities Go beyond the usual shore excursions to visit penguin and seal colonies or Zodiac dinghy rides to see icebergs, humpback whales and orcas up close.

In November 2023, a Norwegian airline landed the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in AntarcticaERIK MOEN/NORSE ATLANTIC AIRWAYS

“The industry is expanding and There is a wide variety of activities including kayaking, diving and helicopter adventures,” said Elizabeth Leane, professor of Antarctic studies at the University of Tasmania. “At some point this amount of activity will be excessive, but we don’t know exactly when.”

Many Iaato members say promoting protection of Antarctica is part of their mission. The opportunity to educate and inspire “is fundamental.” Protect the wild and breathtaking places we visitsaid Hayley Peacock-Gower, marketing director for travel company Aurora Expeditions. “We believe that small ship expeditions are the way forward, with fewer passengers, led by experts and with the utmost respect for the environment.”

In addition to Introduction of new ships that produce fewer CO2 emissionsMany cruise lines are examining all aspects of their operations, including low-impact activities such as snowshoes (equipment that attaches to shoes and allows you to easily walk on snow without sinking). “We make sure our expedition team covers all routes so that the penguins are not captured,” said Damian Perry, managing director of Asia-Pacific company Hurtigruten.

Actually, Iaato members follow strict rules to protect the environmentincluding disposal of waste and adherence to sterilization protocols to prevent the accidental introduction of non-native species.

However, biosecurity studies (including vacuuming tourists' bags, socks, shoes and photographic equipment) revealed that a large number of non-native species are present. “The results didn’t surprise us; “It was what we expected.”said Antarctic ecologist Dana Bergstrom, visiting professor at the University of Wollongong, who helped conduct the study.

AND The risks are real. An invasive grass species has spread to one of Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, while bird flu recently reached the sub-Antarctic islands, where it has had a devastating impact on the seal population.

Will probably reach Antarctica sometime this season, which would be terrible,” Leane said, adding that the virus enters Antarctica via birds rather than tourists. “We don’t know how vulnerable penguins are, but seals and seabirds are definitely vulnerable.”

A study that analyzed tourists' bags, socks, shoes and photography equipment found a large number of non-native speciesPATRICK J ENDRES/GETTY IMAGES

Despite these looming threats, Bergstrom notes Biosecurity is not the greatest threat to Antarctic wilderness areas. “Tourists can help [los riesgos de bioseguridad] We are bringing new clothing to Antarctica, but we know that CO2 emissions are a real problem.”

The long distance most visitors travel to reach Antarctica makes CO2 emissions a serious problem. The average CO2 emissions per person of an Antarctic tourist is 3.76 tonsroughly the total amount a person typically earns in an entire year.

Several studies have shown that on the Antarctic Peninsula, home to popular landing sites such as Cuverville Island in Neko Harbor, the snow has a higher concentration of soot from ship exhaust, which absorbs more heat, speeding snowmelt.

This is what a study calculated Each tourist effectively melted around 83 tons of snow between 2016 and 2020which is largely due to emissions from cruise ships.

Antarctica is at risk not only because of the fragility of its environment, but also because of the lack of a single governing body. The Antarctic Treaty, established in 1961 to govern the continent, operates on a consultative basis, meaning all 56 parties must reach an agreement before any changes can be implemented.

“The last major decision in tourism was a measure passed in 2009 prohibits the disembarkation of cruise ships with more than 500 passengers“, explained Christian. This regulation has not yet been officially implemented as not all signatory countries have ratified it at the national level.

However, it was adopted by Iaato, which also limits the number of ships that can call at a specific location per day, as well as the number of passengers that can be on land at any given time.

“Iaato tends to be a leader in this area because it is much more reactive”Bergstrom added. “What cannot be expected of them as an industry association is to limit the numbers.”

Iaato operators must follow strict rules, which include the disposal of all waste. ANDREW PEACOCK/GETTY IMAGES

There is a clear consensus that something needs to change, but there is no agreement on what those changes should look like. ¿Landings should be carried out at a larger number of locationsfor example, or should we try to keep the human footprint as small as possible?

“We are already seeing adventure tourism spreading to the Ross Sea,” Leane said. “Perhaps we should say that the Antarctic Peninsula has the greatest human impactbut leave the rest of the continent alone.”

Christian believes that any limit – be it on the number of places visited or the number of ships – would be controversial and suggests that an alternative could be to treat Antarctica as a national park and charge entrance fees. “Honestly, that It would be really positive that there is now so little regulation to protect fragile areas and ensure that the industry is regulated by an official legal source rather than self-regulation,” he explained.

Researchers recommend that anyone considering a trip to Antarctica think carefully about their motivation and the impact of their decision. “As a researcher, it is a moral decision that I make every time I leaveif what I do is worth the impact,” said Leane, who added that tourists should also weigh the consequences.

Some cruises carry more than 400 tourists. Most boats depart from the tip of South America. DREAM PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES

“If your motivation is simply that you've already visited six continents and now you want to reach the seventh, I personally think that's a pretty frivolous reason.”. Bergstrom also recommends potential travelers think carefully.

“If you really want to get in touch with snow and ice and you live in the northern hemisphere, can you take a train to the nearest snowy region?” he said. “EITHER If you really want to do this trip, then think about how you can compensate. Calculate how much carbon you will emit and consider how you can limit your carbon footprint elsewhere [de tu vida]“.

*By Ute Junker