Jun 2022

Antarctic tourism: is it a help or a hindrance?

This report summarises the virtual panel discussion on 13th July among members of the APPG Polar Regions and our panel who each presented a perspective on the role and impact of tourism in Antarctica:

  • Gina Greer (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, IAATO) - championing and supporting sustainable tourism in Antarctica.
  • Camilla Nichol (UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, UKAHT) - the relationship between tourism and the preservation of British heritage in Antarctica.
  • David Rootes (Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, ALE) – deep-field, terrestrial Antarctic tourism.
  • Dr Fiona Jones (Oxford University) - the impact of tourism on Antarctic wildlife

The APPG Polar Regions would like to thank all of the panellists for their insights and contributions.

The impact of humans on Antarctic wildlife

Dr Fiona Jones, a penguinologist from the University of Oxford, said that a number of studies show no significant difference in penguin breeding success between visited and unvisited sites. In fact, there is evidence that some penguins’ stress levels are lower in tourist hotspots as the birds become habituated to humans. However, she questioned whether, morally, it is good for these animals to be habituated.

Her colleague, Dr Tom Hart, was one of very few people that visited Antarctica during the pandemic. He reported no obvious changes in the penguins’ behaviour in the absence of tourists, which was encouraging. However, colleagues noticed that some of the penguin highways that they build from their nests to the sea were constructed in different places. A research team in the US, led by Dr Heather Lynch, is using drone imagery from previous years to confirm whether the tourists were causing the penguins to divert from their natural routes. If so, this information can be passed on to tour operators so that tourists can stay away from these areas.

Dr Jones said that, as a scientist, she would prefer to see no tourists in Antarctica, but she explained that there are also benefits to the industry. She would, however, advise against increasing the numbers of tourists, vessels or activities that take place. There is currently a growing trend for helicopter-based activities such as heli-skiing or sightseeing tours. Similar activities in other parts of the world have had a detrimental impact on wildlife, and Dr Jones advised that in Antarctica these activities would pose a threat not only to penguins (where a stress response to helicopters and other aircraft has been documented), but also to marine life, including whales and seals, which have historically been under-studied.  

Carbon emissions from visitors to Antarctica

Brendan O’Hara MP asked how many diesel-powered vessels travel to Antarctica each year and what the travel industry is doing to offset these carbon emissions? IAATO figures from the 2019-2020 season showed that 52 vessels travelled to Antarctica, and they say that 64 are expected this season. Gina Greer said that many guests enquire about carbon offset, but there are no IAATO rules relating to this as yet. However, individual tour operators do offer visitors the opportunity to offset their emissions, if they choose.

Accountability for damage

Brendan O’Hara MP asked who assesses the damage made by tourists and who is responsible for repairing it? Camilla Nichol from the UKAHT explained that any Antarctic Treaty signatory country has the right to inspect another country’s operations with very little warning. This could mean boarding ships or visiting bases and making sure that they’re adhering to the Polar Code. For example, a Chilean naval vessel inspected the main UKAHT base in 2019 and submitted a report to the Antarctic Treaty with a list of measures for improvement.

It is, in many ways, a self-monitoring system by the different Antarctic operators. Dr Jones said that national science programmes from Antarctic Treaty countries have been forced to clean up their act after they were found dumping waste into the ocean and it was spotted by tourist ships. She highlighted the need to monitor all human visitation in Antarctica – including that of national programmes – with the same rigour that is applied to tourism.

Numbers of tourists versus scientists

Dr Caroline Johnson MP asked how many scientists visit Antarctica each year. Simon Garrod from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) estimated that 5,000 scientists are on the continent each season in summer, and approximately 1,000 in the winter. This can be compared to the 74,000 tourists that visited Antarctica in the 2019-2020 season – the highest number ever recorded by IAATO. Permits to visit Antarctica are given by government authorities eg the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in the UK, so they control the number of visitors each season.

IAATO is currently investing in a Systematic Conservation Plan which will research and deliver solutions for the simultaneous management of tourism, science and biodiversity in the Antarctic Peninsula region. David Rootes from ALE said that there is considerably more tourist than scientific activity, but the time that each visitor spends on the continent must be taken into account when gauging impact. Most tourists spend just a few hours ashore (and 20,000 of the 2019-2020 season visitors never left their ships), while scientists can be there for months or a full year, so their impact may be much greater.

Scientists and tour operators working together

There is a lot of logistical collaboration between the diverse stakeholders on this remote continent. Many scientists, including Dr Jones, are grateful to be able to hitch a ride on tourist ships to reach their research locations, and ALE provides flights both for national programmes and research institutes. The UKAHT team at Port Lockroy record data on their local gentoo penguin colony for the British Antarctic Survey and Oxford University, and the Port Lockroy team relies upon tourist ships to bring their supplies and remove their waste. Tourist ships are the emergency responders for the UKAHT’s remote teams on the continent and, in-land, ALE’s remote weather stations provide forecasting for science teams and emergency rescue flights. In many ways, it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Does the impact of tourists outweigh the benefits?

Lord Cromwell questioned whether what tourists gain from visiting Antarctica in person (as opposed to watching an Attenborough documentary) outweigh the impact disbenefits of their visits? He said that not every tourist is keen to become an ambassador for Antarctica, many just want the bragging rights of having been there. Most members of the panel agreed that Antarctic ambassadors can have real influence, summed up by Gina Greer from IAATO: “Our guests represent more than 100 nationalities each season and return with a greater understanding of Antarctica’s environment, its value to global science and how changes to the region can impact us all. We believe that responsible travel can be part of the solution to protecting Antarctica.”