The last continent must remain a pristine wilderness

Prioritising science-based decision-making will enable a sustainable future for Antarctic tourism

Published - June 18, 2024 12:51 am IST

‘Antarctic tourism offers educational and economic benefits but also raises significant environmental concerns’

‘Antarctic tourism offers educational and economic benefits but also raises significant environmental concerns’ | Photo Credit: AFP

The 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM-46), that was held in Kochi, Kerala last month, highlighted the ongoing debate on Antarctic tourism. While the meeting sought to bring in a regulatory framework, it ultimately fell short of a definitive solution. This reflects the complex challenges of managing tourism in a region governed by international consensus and where the environment is rapidly changing.

Since the early 1990s, Antarctic tourism has witnessed a dramatic surge in tourist numbers, which have exploded from a few thousand to over 1,00,000 in the 2022-23 season. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) estimates a figure of 1,18,089 tourists in 2023-2024. The United States and China account for more than 40% of tourists to the Antarctic. This growth is attributed to increased global interest in adventure travel and a desire to experience Antarctica’s unique landscapes and wildlife. Tourists typically embark on multi-day expeditions on small to medium-sized ships, with some opting for larger cruises or fly-sail operations. Activities range from wildlife observation and photography to mountain climbing and skiing.

Antarctic tourism offers educational and economic benefits but also raises significant environmental concerns. Increased human presence disrupts wildlife, damages fragile ecosystems, and risks introducing invasive species. Ship traffic pollutes pristine waters, and tourism adds to the global carbon footprint. Climate change exacerbates these issues by opening new areas for tourism while increasing ecosystem vulnerability. The balance between scientific research, responsible tourism, and environmental protection is under intense pressure.

Gaps in the regulatory framework

The current governance framework for Antarctic tourism is fragmented and lacks clear regulations. The Antarctic Treaty, that came into force in 1961, prioritises peaceful use and scientific research. While the Madrid Protocol offers broad environmental guidelines, it lacks specific tourism regulations. The responsibility for day-to-day management falls largely on the IAATO, a self-regulatory industry body. Many believe IAATO’s guidelines are inadequate to address the growing environmental pressures.

The ATCM is the primary platform for international cooperation on Antarctic issues. Despite recognising the need for a comprehensive tourism regulatory framework, the ATCM-46 failed to reach a consensus. Unanimous agreement from all consultative parties is required for decisions, often slowing action and allowing national interests to impede progress. While some countries push for strong regulations, others prioritise economic benefits or interpret Antarctic principles differently. The current geopolitical climate further complicates international cooperation on Antarctic governance.

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Despite the limitations, the ATCM-46 made some progress. The meeting focused on developing a “comprehensive, flexible, and dynamic” framework for regulating tourism and non-governmental activities. A newly established working group will lead this effort over the next year. This signifies a renewed commitment to address the challenges of the Antarctic. Antarctica needs stronger measures to mitigate tourism impacts, as there are gaps in the current governance frameworks. The Antarctic Treaty System and the Madrid Protocol offer broad guidelines, but daily management relies heavily on self-regulation by IAATO, which many believe is inadequate for protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

A historical perspective on the evolution of discussions around tourism regulation is also valuable. Discussions on tourism regulation have been a point of debate at ATCM meetings since the 1960s. A proposed tourism annex introduced in 1991 failed to gain consensus, leading to the current reliance on IAATO’s self-regulation. Since a 2004 expert meeting on tourism, discussions have grown more frequent, with concerns encompassing environmental impacts, disruption of research programmes, and safety issues. However, the ATCM’s fragmented approach has led to non-binding guidelines rather than comprehensive regulation.

The limitations of the consensus rule are a recurring theme. The requirement for unanimous approval from all consultative parties has often hindered action. Proposals such as banning permanent tourism facilities have failed due to a lack of consensus, with objections emerging from conflicts with domestic laws, sovereignty issues, and differing views on Antarctic principles.

Understanding the true reasons for objections and finding flexible compromises are essential. The consensus rule’s limitations mean activities are permitted if they comply with the Antarctic Treaty and Protocol, leading to “decision making by non-decision making”. This essentially allows unregulated activities to continue in the absence of a clear framework.

India’s line

At the ATCM 44 (2022), concerns about tourism’s impact on Antarctic research, conservation, and the environment were raised. The importance of monitoring the impacts of tourism was emphasised, and India was emphatic on addressing tourism issues. Resolution 5 (2022) advised against building tourism-related structures with significant environmental impacts. Calls for a comprehensive debate on Antarctic tourism continued between ATCM 44 and ATCM 45, with a 2023 workshop highlighting the need for governance action. Despite the lack of international consensus, India enacted its own Antarctic Law in 2022.

Finding a sustainable future for Antarctic tourism requires a multi-pronged approach. Strengthening environmental protection, implementing robust monitoring programmes, and fostering international cooperation are crucial. The recent efforts at ATCM-46 offer a glimmer of hope. By prioritising science-based decision-making and having engagement with all stakeholders, we can ensure that Antarctica remains a pristine wilderness for generations to come, while also recognising the potential benefits of responsible tourism.

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, and Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala

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