When one thinks of Antarctica, images of a vast and untouched wilderness start to emerge. However, what many people underestimate is the sheer number of tourists that actually visit the White Continent each year and how they’re affecting the landscape.
Whilst it’s true that most of Antarctica is untouched, the Antarctic Peninsula is another story all together. The latest figures released point to an upsurge in tourism with over 35,000 people visiting the peninsula in 2015.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) believes that this figure is set to rise by 14% to 43,000 next year. This has led many people to question whether tourism is actually sustainable in Antarctica?
IAATO certainly have stringent rules and regulate the Antarctica cruising industry strictly. Only a certain amount of boats are allowed to visit Antarctica each year and each boat has a strict route to avoid other cruise ships. Tourists can only get within a certain distance of the wildlife and most landing sites have a walking space of less than 2km sq.
However, concerns still arise within the industry and Claire Christian, acting executive director at IAATO, states that “Tourism is currently well managed, but the status quo may not last forever.” Claire’s colleague, Amanda Lynnes also stated that “People want to visit Antarctica because it is a pristine environment, we don’t want to have them visiting part of it and another ship to be waiting in the distance for them to leave.”
IAATO is well aware that more and more krill fishing boats are being spotted in the region which, although legal, certainly takes away from the untouched wilderness feel that tourists pay substantial amounts to witness.
As Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten notes, the future of Antarctica’s tourism survival relies solely on the fact that it is untouched. “In the past, we had some free-riders – operators that did not comply with the IAATO guidelines – and that led to misunderstandings, overuse of landing sites and a loss of the sense of wilderness for some visitors, luckily we have no large operators who now opt out. Today’s strong regulations are suited to the job.”
Mr Skjeldam also pointed out the futility of reducing tourism, pointing to the positives that the industry brings. “To keep some places on earth out of bounds for tourism will often simply obscure challenges. Tourists can be witnesses to the ongoing changes in the Antarctic waters caused by climate change – to see and learn for themselves, and to further help raise awareness when they get home. It is a good thing.”
Whilst tourism is certainly on the increase, so far the human footprint on the Antarctic continent has remained very low and raising people’s awareness as to the wildlife and melting glaciers is certainly not a bad thing. However, if cowboy operators started abusing the regulations, trouble could be just around the corner. All there is to do is wait and see.
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