Can a trip to the remote wilderness of Antarctica be sustainable? Why is Antarctica such a desirable holiday location and what risks do these ventures bring?
The experience of a lifetime – a holiday to Antarctica.
Yet the rising popularity of "eco-tourist" trips to the Antarctic, fuelled by the so-called "Saga Generation" (wealthy pensioners who are spending their money on adventurous trips) could create an environmental disaster (Telegraph 31/03/08).
As the number of visitors and ships to this region increases, so too does the risk of loss of life or environmental damage, yet these ‘eco-tourists’ still come. How sustainable can a trip to this region be and why are people so keen to visit when the potential damage is so high?
The journey south and destination Antarctica
The Growth of Antarctic Tourism
The Conflicts Involved in Antarctic Tourism
The Management of Antarctic Tourism
IB Geography Exam Style Questions
The International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008, a large scientific programme focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic, has been drawing attention to our Polar regions and the changes that are taking place within them. In order to have full and equal coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic, IPY 2007-8 covers two full annual cycles from March 07 to March 2009 and involves over 200 projects, with thousands of scientists from over 60 nations examining a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics. It has provided an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate, follow, and get involved with, cutting edge science in real-time.
The studies that have been carried out in particular have highlighted the environmental damage and risk that these regions face. The plight of the regions and their habitants has been brought into focus, with many people campaigning for the need to make changes in order to protect the beautiful, fragile ecosystems that exist. Yet it is the ecosystems themselves that are the major pull for many visitors to Antarctica – people want to see this beautiful, pristine environment first hand before it is lost or damaged forever. It is this very dilemma that many people face: the urge to preserve and protect this environment so allowing it to continue, pitted against the desire to see and visit this environment, to experience this beauty and remoteness in person before they disappear (Telegraph 23/12/07)
The trip involves approximately sixteen hours of flights from Europe to South America heading for 'the most southerly city in the World', Ushuaia in Argentina.
In Ushuaia, transportation changes from a plane to a ship, and once on board a vessel, the journey heads south to cross the Drake Passage before finally approaching the 1300 kilometre long, partly ice free, Antarctic Peninsula.
Once in the Antarctic Peninsula, days are spent taking part in a series of micro-cruises, as well as staying aboard the ship. The micro-cruises take the Antarctic tourists out on inflatable Zodiac craft (motorised dinghies), touring the many inlets and bays where the wildlife and ice can be seen close by; landing parties visit the research stations that are established in Antarctica, meeting the scientists and researches who live and work their for large parts of the year; the groups also visit the penguin colonies to observe the birds in their natural habitats.
The window for such experiences is narrow. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook the Antarctic tour season is short - around four months, with each month offering its own highlights:
November is early summer in Antarctica, the spring pack ice is breaking up, and birds, especially penguins, are courting and mating.
The months of December and January, when penguins are hatching eggs and feeding chicks, are the height of the austral (southern hemisphere) summer and bring warmer temperatures and up to twenty hours of sunlight each day.
In the late summer month of February, whale-watching is best and penguin chicks are beginning to fledge.
I consider myself to be a conscientious traveller, not necessarily an eco-tourist, but somebody that cares about the natural world. I need to consider the carbon footprint of such an expedition. Why am I not having a more environmentally friendly, local economy supporting vacation closer to my home? Most of all, I need to consider the impact that a holiday to Antarctica would have on this delicate ecosystem, the last pristine wilderness on earth, from the fuel that would be burnt travelling there, the waste I would create whilst there, to the very footsteps I take and the potential shipping accidents that could occur.
So, can I justify going there? Is tourism in Antarctica sustainable?
Where is it exactly that I want to visit? I want to head south. Not north to the Arctic, another possible destination for tourism experiences, but south, past the southerly reaches of South America and New Zealand to the Antarctic.
Antarctica is the Earth's southernmost continent, a 14.4 million square kilometres land mass which overlays the South Pole and is by the Antarctic Treaty System as ‘all land and ice shelves south of the southern 60th parallel (the 60°S line of latitude)’. Ninety eight percent of Antarctica is covered by ice. In comparison, the North Pole, or the Arctic, has no land mass - a visit to the North Pole would involve you landing and walking on floating sea ice.
Antarctica is uninhabited; it has no permanent residents and is not owned by anybody. It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The ATS came into force on 23 June 1961 after ratification by the twelve countries then active in Antarctic science (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russian Federation, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States of America). The treaty, which has now been signed by 46 countries, has the following broad aims: to demilitarize Antarctica, to establish it as a zone free of nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste, and to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only. It also promotes international scientific cooperation in Antarctica and sets aside disputes over territorial sovereignty.
Why am I attracted to one of these 'experience' based vacations? When did they become so popular? Aren't holidays meant to involve high temperatures, sandy beaches and melting ice creams? A week doesn't seem to go by without the possibility of reading about some journalist's trip to Antarctica in the Sunday newspapers or watching some minor celebrity's journey south on a holiday television programme.
Maybe it's the nature of my employment and my lifestyle that means that I have the higher level of disposable income necessary for such trips. My working patterns are flexible enough to allow me to take the necessary time off work. Air travel is definitely cheap - making that initial flight over to Argentina more economically viable than it has been in the past. There is also the convenience factor - I can book my place, order my tickets, buy the needed specialist clothing and even check on the weather and conditions in Antarctica, all from the comfort of my Internet connected computer. Or am I just a victim of fashion? Are these 'adventure' holidays the trendy thing to do?
The first confirmed sighting of the Antarctic continent is commonly accepted to have occurred in 1820 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. The explorers that followed in the 19th and early 20th centuries returned with stories of ice, blizzards and bitter cold. Dangers abounded and heroics were essential: with no human population of its own, Antarctica was a continent for real 'men'. Tourism was unthinkable then, but times change.
Antarctic tourism began in December 1956, when a sightseeing flight circled part of the continent. In January 1958, the first cruise ship entered Antarctic waters. Lars Eric Lindblad, a Swedish-American entrepreneur, specializing in adventure travel, began regular cruises in the southern summer of 1966-67.
Tourism there is growing exponentially. Until 1987, fewer than 1,000 people per year travelled to the continent. According to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC - a global coalition of environmental non governmental organizations), 4,698 tourists visited Antarctica in the 1990/91 southern hemisphere summer. There were 6,500 in 1992/93, and double that number in 2002/3. In 2003/4 the figure rose to 24,281 and following the international success of the documentary March of the Penguins, "penguin fever" pushed numbers above 30,000 by the end of the 2006 season (Telegraph 10/02/06). In 2007 there were more than 40,000 visitors, with ASOC estimating that numbers are doubling every five years, partly because of the rise of the "Saga Generation" - wealthy pensioners who are spending their money on adventurous trips (Telegraph 31/03/08)
Early in 2007 the 109,000-tonne Golden Princess became the largest cruise ship to sail into the Antarctic region, carrying 3,700 passengers and crew aboard a floating palace complete with five pools, a casino and a nine-hole putting green. Mass-tourism had arrived, with some commentators saying this heralded "a new era in the commercial exploitation of the Great White South" (Telegraph 06/09/06).
Its sister ship, the Star Princess, returned in 2008, with a 16 day trip costing up to £2,800 (4000 Euros) for the most luxurious accommodation. The main risk presented by these floating hotels is not the impact of the tourists that they carry, as they tend to stay on board, but the possibility of a shipping accident. The isolation in the rough southern seas makes rescue and environmental clean up operations nigh on impossible. The sinking of The M/S Explorer in November 2007 made this risk all the more real (BBC 24/11/07). Despite this, it is forecast that visitor numbers will continue to climb as the sea ice in the region continues to retreat and opens up new passages for cruise ships to sail (BBC 25/03/08)
In December 2007 Australia landed a commercial jet on an ice runway on the frozen continent, linking Antarctica with flights from Hobart, Tasmania, enabling Australian scientists to reach Antarctica in four hours, rather than the 10 days or more it took by sea. Whilst there are no immediate plans to open the air service to tourists, Australia's then environment minister, Ian Campbell did say that in the future it could possibly be used by commercial visitors, so opening Antarctica to a whole new exploration era (Telegraph 12/12/07)
There are conflicts to be considered when making my final decision about going on holiday to Antarctica. Antarctica is not owned by anybody so surely I should have the right to visit if I wish. If I visit and learn from my experiences I can return and educate others about the delicate ecosystems and the threat of global warming upon this last great wilderness.
Environmental impacts in Antarctica can occur across a wide range of spatial scales. At the largest scale are the effects in Antarctica of global environmental crises such as global warming and ozone depletion. More localised, but still with the potential to cause continent wide effects, are the impacts of fishing and hunting. Mining for resources has been prohibited under the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. More localised still are the impacts of visitors, such as scientists or tourists, individual adventurers sailing yachts or flying their own aircraft to Antarctica, environmental non-government organization expeditions such as Greenpeace engaged in public awareness expeditions, commercial film crews, and commercial tourism expeditions.
Conflict 1: The Lack of Regulation of Tourism
Since the Antarctic is not owned by anybody, the regulation of activities such as tourism is difficult. Antarctic tourism is not a formally embedded priority in any existing Antarctic Treaty System document in the way that peace, science and the environment clearly are. The situation at the Earth's northern extreme where similar delicate ecosystems exist is very different. Those areas are owned by the likes of Canada and the United States of America (via Alaska) and therefore direct legislation, responsibility and control are far easier.
The Antarctic Treaty System does include environmental legislation. The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection, otherwise known as the Madrid Protocol was adopted in 1991 in response to proposals that the wide range of existing provisions relating to the protection of the Antarctic environment should be brought together in a comprehensive and legally binding form. The Madrid Protocol designates Antarctica as a 'natural reserve, devoted to peace and science' and establishes environmental principles for the conduct of all activities. It prohibits mining, subjects all activities to prior assessment of their environmental impacts and requires the development of contingency plans to respond to environmental emergencies. However, it doesn't form any legally binding framework to monitor or control Antarctic Tourism operations.
In June 2008 the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition attended the XXXI Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting - the annual conference of all Antarctic Treaty Parties, where tighter tourism management was called for. The report from this meeting was published in September 2008, but one of the key outcomes was the failure of Parties to agree on any constructive regulation of any aspect of the commercial tourism industry despite the concerns raised by emerging forms of tourism and recent serious accidents, and fairly strong willingness by some influential Parties.
Conflict 2: The Risk to the Marine Environment
With the presence of vessels in the waters around the Antarctic continent there is a risk to the marine environment. The risks include the discharging of waste from the vessels into the waters and the consequences of an accident that could release oil and fuel into the ecosystem. As the surrounding marine environment plays an essential part in the Antarctic ecosystem, damage done here would have wide ranging consequences.
The Norwegian MS Nordkapp hit rocks near Deception Island in January 2007, spilling a small amount of fuel. Although no one was hurt and other ships were nearby to help, the incident was said to be a "wake-up call". The MS Nordkapp was an ice-strengthened vessel with a crew who had experience of working in Antarctic conditions and there were only about 350 people on board. It used marine diesel fuel, which disperses in water quite quickly, but some bigger ships use heavy fuel oil, which can be very persistent and exceptionally difficult to clean up. Read more about this incident in Tourism threat to Earth's last great wilderness (Guardian, 30 April 2007) and HMS Endurance to the rescue MOD 01 February 2007
In 1989 the Argentine navy resupply ship Bahia Paraiso stopped at the U.S. research base Palmer Station to allow tourists to visit. On departure the vessel struck an underwater rock. No one was seriously injured, but the ship later capsized, spreading an oil slick that fouled nearby penguin, cormorant, and seal colonies.
Conflict 3: The Risk to the Terrestrial Ecosystems
Due to the short growing season and extreme abiotic conditions, the flora and fauna of the Antarctic are very delicate and susceptible to damage. With most tourists landing at the same points along the 1,300 kilometre long Antarctic Peninsular, the impact of the visitor’s presence is concentrated. Tourist visits tend to be concentrated at biologically rich sites and historic or current sites of human activity – often co-located with biologically rich sites. Land transportation, boat landings and frequent trampling of ice-free areas can crush and uproot mosses and lichens and can also cause localized erosion at landing sites.
The time span of the tourist activity is also focused around the annual period of penguin and seal breeding times. Heart rates of birds have been measured to increase by 20-100% as they are approached by humans. Human presence and aircraft noise could cause adult birds to abandon their nests, giving predators the chance to attack their young.
Conflict 4: The Risk from Invasive Species
Invasive alien species are said to represent a huge potential problem for the native Antarctic ecosystems. Seeds, spores and insects introduced unwittingly by visiting tourists, could introduce non-native species which would in term put additional pressures upon the native species through competition for the limited biotic and abiotic conditions. Global warming could help rats and mice colonise the more clement parts of the continent, heralding disaster for vast colonies of ground-nesting seabirds. There is also risk from the introduction of disease, not human diseases, but diseases that could impact upon the continent's mammal, insect and plant populations. Visitors are advised that all boots, clothing and velcro attachments must be cleaned of mud and seeds before heading towards Antarctica.
So far, few alien species have become established on Antarctica: just a few kinds of meadow grass, and a species of flightless midge on Signey Island. South Georgia, a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, is one example of the damage alien species can cause. Since it was first visited by whalers two centuries ago, more than 200 alien species have taken hold there including grasses, brown rats, inverterbates and reindeer.
There is also a significant threat from widespread fouling on ships’ hulls (when organisms attach themselves onto the hull of a ship and continue to live and develop there) This fouling can involve as many as 20 species, including some known to be invasive such as the Mediterranean mussel, which can survive Antarctic conditions (Times 05/06/07)
Conflict 5: The Dumping of Waste
In the early days of Antarctic exploration and scientific research, waste management consisted of disposal to open tips and the practice of sea-icing which involved pushing waste onto the sea-ice. Sea-iced material would travel out with the ice as it broke up at the beginning of summer to be dispersed among the marine environment. Commitment to the Madrid Protocol confers the obligation to clean-up abandoned work sites and waste tips as long as the clean-up process does not cause greater adverse impacts or cause the removal of historic sites or monuments. The Protocol also prohibits, among other things, the discharge of plastics, oil and noxious substances into the Antarctic Treaty Area, regulates the discharge of sewage and food waste and requires the removal of most wastes from the area.
Antarctic tourism is a big money business and it is expanding. The expanding number of tourist operations, especially as it becomes more mainstream and moves beyond small, specialist operators, needs to be managed to limit its impacts.
Management should play a part in my Antarctic holiday experience. My choice of tour operator could be influenced by their environmental promises or credentials. What education and knowledge will I gain before I set foot into a Zodiac inflatable craft or upon the Antarctic Peninsula itself? Is the vessel I sail south upon going to be the only one I see during my experience or are there going to be many other ships there spoiling my wilderness experience and scaring all the wildlife away that I have come to see?
Lars Eric Lindblad once said, "You can't protect what you don't know." He believed that by providing a first-hand experience to tourists you would educate them to the ecological sensitivity of the Antarctic environment and promote a greater understanding of the Earth's resources and the important role of Antarctica in the global environment.
The Regulation of Tourist and Tourism Operators
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed in 1991 by seven private tour operators conducting excursions in Antarctica "to practice and promote the highest possible standards of travel in this remote, wild and delicate region of the world".
Currently, 80 Antarctica-bound outfitters representing 14 countries are voluntary members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. The IAATO has established extensive procedures and guidelines that ensure appropriate, safe and environmentally sound private-sector travel to the Antarctic. They suggest regulations and restrictions on numbers of people ashore, staff-to-passenger ratios, site-specific and activity guidelines, wildlife watching, pre- and post-visit activity reporting, passenger, crew and staff briefings, previous Antarctic experience for tour staff, contingency and emergency medical evacuation plans and more.
The IAATO outlines sensible guidelines on managing visitors but it is only a voluntary organisation. Some individuals and organizations believe that limits should be made to the number of tourists entering the Antarctic region by the Antarctic Treaty. However this is controversial - it is reported that last year the United States voted against limiting the numbers and so it is unlikely to be ratified in the near future as a consensus is needed.
An alternative approach would be to require every tourist operator to demonstrate that they have a system in place for dealing with an emergency. The UK wants a ban on ships which have not been specially strengthened to deal with sea ice entering areas of water where ice coverage is more than 10%. It is also calling for a "buddy system" for large ships so that if one gets into trouble there is always another vessel nearby which it can call for help. Antarctica has no coastguard.
The Education of Tourists
Education plays a huge role in management. The education of visitors can have an influence in minimizing their impacts during landings on Antarctica. As the number of tourists grows, it becomes especially important to do everything possible to reduce their impacts. The following are edited highlights from 'Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic' proposed by the IAATO and adopted by the Antarctic Treaty Meeting in 1994. They however remain a 'recommendation' and not a legally enforceable system.
Protect Antarctic Wildlife
Do not feed, touch, or handle birds or seals, or approach or photograph them in ways that cause them to alter their behavior. Special care is needed when animals are breeding or molting.
Do not damage plants, for example by walking, driving, or landing on extensive moss beds or lichen-covered scree slopes.
Keep noise to the minimum to avoid frightening wildlife.
Do not bring non-native plants or animals into the Antarctic such as live poultry, pet dogs and cats or house plants.
Respect Protected Areas
A variety of areas in the Antarctic have been afforded special protection because of their particular ecological, scientific, historic or other values. Entry into certain areas may be prohibited except in accordance with a permit issued by an appropriate national authority.
Know the locations of areas that have been afforded special protection and any restrictions regarding entry and activities that can be carried out in and near them.
Do not damage, remove, or destroy Historic Sites or Monuments or any artifacts associated with them.
Respect Scientific Research
Do not interfere with scientific research, facilities or equipment.
Obtain permission before visiting Antarctic science and support facilities; reconfirm arrangements 24-72 hours before arrival; and comply with the rules regarding such visits.
Do not interfere with, or remove, scientific equipment or marker posts, and do not disturb experimental study sites, field camps or supplies.
Be prepared for severe and changeable weather and ensure that your equipment and clothing meet Antarctic standards. Remember that the Antarctic environment is inhospitable, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.
Keep a safe distance from all wildlife, both on land and at sea.
Take note of, and act on, the advice and instructions from your leaders; do not stray from your group.
Do not expect a rescue service. Self-sufficiency is increased and risks reduced by sound planning, quality equipment, and trained personnel.
Respect any smoking restrictions, particularly around buildings, and take great care to safeguard against the danger of fire. This is a real hazard in the dry environment of Antarctica.
Keep Antarctica Pristine
Antarctica remains relatively pristine, the largest wilderness area on Earth. It has not yet been subjected to large scale human perturbations. Please keep it that way.
Do not dispose of litter or garbage on land. Open burning is prohibited.
Do not disturb or pollute lakes or streams. Any materials discarded at sea must be disposed of properly.
Do not paint or engrave names or graffiti on rocks or buildings.
Do not collect or take away biological or geological specimens or man-made artifacts as a souvenir, including rocks, bones, eggs, fossils, and parts or contents of buildings.
Should I go on holiday to Antarctica? Would you go on a holiday there? What could you do to ensure that your impact and the impact of your holiday experience upon Antarctica was minimised?
Here are two Geography exam style questions. The first, a six point question which could be found in the structured exam question in Paper Two; and the second, a twenty point essay style question.
Explain the increasing tourist demand for holidays in remote destinations. [6 Marks]
The command word for the question is 'explain'. 'Explain' directs you to describe clearly and then give reasons for the increasing demand for holidays in remote destinations.
When approaching such an exam question you should try and include at least two different examples or mini-case studies. You could use the discussions within this article as one example plus an extra example such as Off the map Guardian 23/12/06 or The mother of all package tours Guardian 03/12/02
Your answer should discuss levels of disposable income, flexibility of working hours, the role of the media in promoting such locations and experiences, the falling cost of travel - especially air travel and ease of research and booking via the Internet.6 mark questions are usually the third question of the 'structured question' in Paper 2 and should take you about 10 minutes.
Explain why sustainable tourism is necessary but difficult to achieve, referring to one or more examples. [20 Marks]
The command word for the question is 'explain'. 'Explain' directs you to describe clearly and give reasons for why sustainable tourism is necessary but difficult to achieve, referring to one or more examples.
You could use the information provided by this article as a basis for an answer to this essay question. The essay should be split into at least four sections.The first section would be an introduction that shows the examiner that you understand the term 'sustainable tourism' and to briefly outline the case studies that you will be using
The second section should be a discussion of why sustainable tourism in necessary. In terms of Antarctic Tourism this will review the impact of how tourism is impacting upon the delicate environment and the steps that could be taken to limit these and make the tourism operations more sustainable.
The third section should be focused upon why, and how, sustainable tourism is difficult. This section would highlight the difficulties in controlling Antarctic Tourism due to its expanding popularity and the lack of ownership.
The fourth and final section should be a conclusion of the main arguments that you have made linking these back to the case studies given. Your conclusion should also include a personal opinion.
An answer would be developed if more than one case study was used. This article provides enough information to provide the basis but additional examples could be given regarding eco-tourism initiatives in another region, such as the Tropical Rainforest. In 'Shades of Green' The Guardian 26/05/07, Costa Rica is held up as a shining example of eco best practice, but how much does tourism actually benefit the environment and local communities.
20 mark questions are the essay questions and should take you about 40 minutes at Standard Level or 35 minutes at Higher Level.
A top mark answer would have excellent overall quality, showing depth of understanding and insight. It would show specific, accurate knowledge using appropriate and developed examples (case studies). The answer would use clear and accurate terminology, fully labelled and annotated maps and diagrams (as appropriate) with very good structure and organization of material. There would be very good, detailed analysis covering all the important aspects of the question. The discussion would be reasoned; justified and with thoughtful evaluations.
This article has been produced by Richard Allaway, Head of Geography at the International School of Toulouse and the author of geographyalltheway.com, a website of resources and lessons for school geography teachers and students at KS3, GCSE, IGCSE, A level and IB Geography Level.
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