Why Antarctica? Why would you want to venture to the Antarctic continent? And should you, taking into consideration the significant Antarctica tourism impact?
I got the same questions over and over again from friends, family, and people that I met along my travels. Why would you want to go to Antarctica? Isn’t it cold, expensive and very, VERY far away? Can you even go to Antarctica as a traveler?
When I was in university, a few of my professors did their research in Antarctica. In my mind, I too thought Antarctica was a research-only destination for scientists. I hadn’t considered it a travel destination until I saw other travelers sharing their own adventures on travel blogs and vlogs.
When I booked my Antarctica Basecamp Adventure with Oceanwide Expeditions, I wanted to learn about the Antarctic environment, the wildlife, and how climate change and humans have impacted this untouched place. But, in all honesty, like many other travelers who venture to the southern continent, I just wanted to cross it off my bucket list. And that was wrong of me.
Stepping foot on the Antarctic continent showed me just how small I am in this world. It made me more humble about my existence and more appreciative of the world around me. My Antarctic expedition also taught me about the environment, the wildlife, and the Antarctic conservation and preservation.
But, as a science lover and environmentally-conscious person, that brings me to the bigger question – should I have traveled to Antarctica? What impact did I have? And how will my travels influence further tourism and the potential detriment to this pristine continent?
Reasons why people want to travel to Antarctica
Over the past 20-30 years, Antarctica tourism has grown rapidly. The increased media presence, the threat of global warming, the increase in disposable income, and the rise in ecotourism have started turning heads. People are seeking out Antarctica as a travel destination just as they would a Mediterranean cruise or an African safari.
In today’s day and age, the media is one of the most influential sources of information. And we breathe it all in as if it were air. We are constantly consuming and absorbing new information, learning about places, and watching events take place in real-time from halfway across the globe.
The media’s exposure of Antarctica through productions, such as BCC’s Frozen Planet, Anthony Powell’s Antarctica: A Year on Ice documentary, March of the Penguins, and more recently Disney Natures’ Penguins, have only increased Antarctica tourism.
Videographers, photographers, and journalists are capturing the natural beauty and magnificence of the Antarctic continent. Through their work, they are sharing everything from the wildlife to the unpredictability of Antarctic storms to the unbelievable silence of nature that can be found nowhere else.
Antarctica has not seen so much publicity since the explorers were fighting for the fame of conquest to reach the continent and the South Pole. And people are flocking to the southern continent to experience it for themselves.
Global Warming & Climate Change
The threat of global warming has impacted tourism in a way we have not seen before.
As the world population grows, millions of people every year are seeking every opportunity to travel and travel more. They want to explore regions of the planet before they all change or become inaccessible. And this includes travel to Antarctica.
Climate change has also impacted ice growth and recession on the Antarctic continent. This change has opened up previously inaccessible routes and passages. Landing sites that used to be covered with snow are now open because it is so much warmer than in previous years. The ice is not reforming or remaining in certain areas and tour operators are taking advantage of them.
More access to the continent has encouraged an increase in exposure and promotion for Antarctica cruises and expeditions. And thus, more people are seeking out the once on a lifetime experience.
With the rise of more disposable incomes and the drive to explore places that are not the normal travel destination, more and more travelers are looking to places like Antarctica for their next adventure.
Antarctic cruises and expeditions are not cheap. The average Antarctic cruise can cost you anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 USD, while the average Antarctica expedition will cost you anywhere from $5,000 to upwards of $20,000 USD depending on the length of the trip, destinations, activities, and stateroom. And that’s just the cost of the expedition. These prices do not include your transportation to your port of embarkation.
A disposable income provides people with financial stability and the knowledge that they can travel to Antarctica and can afford such an expensive venture.
Ecotourism & Adventure Tourism
The rise in ecotourism and adventure tourism culture has increased the public’s awareness of the accessibility of the polar regions. People, including myself, only thought that Antarctica was for researchers. You didn’t hear about travelers going to Antarctica until ecotourism and adventure tourism really took off.
More and more organizations are starting to promote ecotourism and environmentally-friendly practices. They are trying to draw in this new type of traveler and still positively impact the environment and wildlife. And why shouldn’t Antarctica be one of those places?
Tourism in Antarctica is the driving force behind continuing Antarctic research and conservation. Antarctica travel operators, companies, and organizations strongly promote ecotourism. They draw people in by promising them the trip of a lifetime while educating the public on the conservation and protection practices they uphold.
While exploring Antarctica, travelers learn about Antarctic conservation, wildlife and marine biology, and threats impacting the continent from climate change. They also help travelers become Antarctic Ambassadors to continue educating people about Antarctica. And a portion of the cost of the Antarctica expedition goes towards further conservation efforts and research.
“First-hand travel experiences foster a better understanding of a destination where no indigenous population exists to speak for itself. Visitors — representing more than 100 different nationalities on average per season — return home as ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship, and peace.” – IAATO.org.
Reasons you shouldn’t travel to Antarctica
The combined efforts of the Antarctic Treaty, IAATO, Antarctica tour operators, and Antarctic ambassadors are great and do make a positive impact on the continent, but there work only goes so far. Antarctic travel comes with a price.
Unfortunately, any type of travel comes with an environmental price. Planes, trains, and cars all have an associated carbon footprint that they make on the planet. And ships have some of the highest carbon footprints of them all.
When I was booking my Antarctica Basecamp Adventure with Swoop Antarctica and Oceanwide Expeditions, the carbon footprint that I would have on the planet was listed for me on the booking site. For the 12-day Basecamp Adventure, with camping, sea kayaking, mountaineering and snowshoeing included with the expedition, my personal carbon emissions would be approximately 4,239 kg of CO2!
To put that into perspective, according to the European Commission 2018, the average per capita CO2 emissions in 2017 was 5,729 kg. In 12 days alone, my emissions were 74% of the average. Which is crazy high! And that’s not even taking into account the transportation to get down to Ushuaia to embark on the expedition. Or the other trips I had taken that year.
Related read: Here’s how to travel without flying
Pollution from Ships
Besides the large carbon footprint that comes with traveling by ship to Antarctica, there are other sources of pollution that a ship produces that are harmful to Antarctica and its inhabitants.
Antarctica cruises and expedition ships produce a lot of waste – food waste, carbon waste, sewage waste, and water waste. Thankfully, there are strict regulations in place that prevent ships from disposing of any waste into the ocean. This prevents the ships from polluting the water and reduces the risk of animals relying on ships for food.
However, there are still other forms of pollution that are very harmful to the environment and are more difficult to control.
Oil spills are a huge fear when traveling to Antarctica. There have been a handful of oil spills that have occurred in Antarctica over the decades. Major oil spills are thankfully not as common in the Antarctic Ocean, but the increase in tourism may increase the risk of oil spills.
Noise pollution is another form of pollution that is detrimental to the environment and ocean life. The sound of ships passing through the ocean has been shown to change behavioral patterns, especially in migratory species like whales.
The increase in tourism in Antarctica may bring unknown risks to the environment and wildlife. Since there is no native human population that lives on Antarctica, the wildlife inhabitants are not used to sharing their home with us.
Our presence through research and tourism may be impacting the breeding season or patterns, the population size, and the food resources. It could also be changing the natural ice loss and formation. This changes the overall landmass size and impacts breeding grounds and habitat size.
We may not be able to see significant wildlife disruption right now, but the more tourism increases, the greater the impact becomes. And when we begin to see those changes, it may already be too late to reverse them.
Antarctica, like the rest of the planet, is a fragile environment. And it is very susceptible to even the smallest changes in the environment. It has no native human population and the only true residents of the continent are the native wildlife, bacteria, and plant species.
Researchers first went out to Antarctica because of its pristine environment untouched by humans. It was and still is one of the best places to understand Earth’s history, climate cycles, and wildlife. Their groundbreaking work captured the public eye through the media and inspired people to travel to the continent.
However, the more travelers who visit, the greater the impact it will have on the environment and wildlife long term. Larger ships and more ships are being built to meet the higher demand. This will increase the number of passengers each ship carries and will negatively impact the continent.
Increased tourism to Antarctica will greatly disrupt the natural environment. This disruption could be detrimental and could take the continent decades to recover if we are not careful.
Non-native Species & Bacteria
When we travel from one place to another, we unknowingly spread species and bacteria on our clothing, bodies, and luggage. Travelers and researchers may unknowingly bring seeds, dirt, and bacteria from other places to Antarctica.
Tour operators attempt to prevent this by providing all travelers with special landing muck boots. The muck boots are used for all landings and zodiac cruises. Anytime you leave the ship, you must wear your boots. These boots must be thoroughly cleaned with a special solution before leaving the ship, before returning onto the zodiac, and after returning to the ship.
All outer gear must also be vacuumed thoroughly before it can be worn for landings. Both of these steps are extremely important to ensure that nothing is unknowingly transferred from the ships to the landing sites and nothing from the landing sites is transferred to the ship.
However, it is not 100% effective. Disruption may still occur. When we got hot while snowshoeing or mountaineering or even walking around, we took off our outer layers. This exposed our middle and inner layers, and we had not been required to vacuum those items.
Also, we naturally shed dead skin cells and bacteria. Our skin cells are not normally found in Antarctica and the minute we step into the continent, we are already shedding and spreading debris and species.
Possible solutions to further reduce the Antarctica tourism impact
Unfortunately, there are a lot of negatives that come with Antarctica travel and research. They are extremely important to know when making the decision of whether or not you should travel to Antarctica. But there are also some great solutions that travelers and tour operators
Limit the number of passengers
Per IAATO regulations, only 100 people are allowed to set foot on the continent at each landing site at a time. Also, ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to make any landings on Antarctica or on any surrounding islands. These rules are followed very strictly by IAATO partners and tour operators and I agree with the rules completely.
They greatly reduce the number of people on the continent, reducing the overall impact. But, I believe that this should be taken even further.
As mentioned above, Antarctica tourism has grown rapidly over the past 20-30 years and is expected to continue growing. And tour operators are trying to keep up with the demand. This is resulting in more expeditions and more ships traveling during the Antarctica travel season.
I believe that IAATO should not just limit the number of people that can go ashore, but the number of people allowed to travel each season. They could cap the number of ships traveling between November and March and prevent new ships from being built to carry more passengers.
They could also create a lottery system for tour operators. Each tour operator is allowed a set number of passengers for the entire Antarctica travel season. This will cap the number of travelers allowed to travel to Antarctica as well.
Expand the wildlife protection zone
Per IAATO regulations, all travelers, staff, crew, and researchers must keep at least 5 meters away from wildlife and nesting grounds. This is also followed very well be Antarctica tour operators, however, I believe this wildlife protection zone could be even larger. Instead of 5 meters, the zone could be expanded to 7 or 10 meters away to limit human interaction even more and decrease wildlife disruption.
Large fines & strict regulations
All Antarctica tour operators, travelers, and researchers should be required to abide by IAATO and conservation guidelines. Should any party refuse to follow the regulations, they should be required to pay large fines and be penalized harshly for their inability to follow.
Unfortunately, there are still a very small handful of operators who are not members of IAATO and independent travel vessels that choose not to follow the guidelines. It should be a requirement for all vessels and operators to be members of IAATO and must abide by the rules and things such as minimizing waste and pollution there should become a priority.
Tour operators provide all outer gear
All tour operators provide travelers with muck boots for landing and zodiac excursions. Some operators will also provide travelers with an outer parka jacket. Otherwise, travelers are asked to bring their own gear for Antarctica.
As mentioned above, the problem with travelers bringing their own gear is the risk of spreading debris, seeds, and bacteria. To reduce this risk, all tour operators should provide all travelers with the special outer gear necessary for landing excursions (i.e. muck boots, parka jackets, pants, gloves, etc.).
This gear should be professionally cleaned and carefully inspected by the operating crew and staff to limit the spread between ship and landing sites and between different landing sites. The provided gear should be included in the cost of the trip.
This will also encourage passengers to bring less clothing with them to Antarctica. Less clothing decreases the luggage weight on planes and on the ship. It’s a win-win-win situation all around.
Travel to Antarctica from the comfort of your home
You can easily learn all about Antarctica without ever setting foot on the continent. You can read Antarctica travel guides and expedition stories, like Loney Planet’s Antarctica travel guide or Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.
There are countless movies and documentaries exploring the history, climate, and wildlife of Antarctica. Antarctica: A Year on Ice, Secrets Beneath the Ice, and Frozen Planet are a few of my favorites that give you an in-depth look and understanding of Antarctica and all she has to offer.
You can also learn more about Antarctica and current research projects directly from IAATO and the British Antarctic Survey. They are constantly updating their information, research projects, and they provide great tips on how you can travel to Antarctica while keeping the environment and wildlife safe.
Many people, including myself, feel that they must see something to truly understand its value and beauty. And to be honest, it was powerful to witness the beauty of Antarctica with my own eyes and to now be able to share it with others. However, my expedition took a toll on the environment and climate. I was aware of these factors prior to traveling to Antarctica, and many other travelers and researchers are very aware of the costs as well.
So, as you begin to think about traveling to Antarctica, keep all of these factors in mind. Yes, you are about to experience one of the most amazing places in the world and see things that you may have never dreamed of seeing. But at what cost.