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Tourists Have Increased In The Antarctic: How Do We Save The Region?

Due to the pandemic and strict lockdowns, the world of tourism and travel had come to an abrupt halt. While many researchers observed the positive effects that it had in the environment, others continue to be ignorant.

As things slowly begin to reopen, we must not forget the lessons we have learnt in the past few months and take them to employ a new method of travel, a sustainable one. As travellers, tour operators and tourism boards, we need to rethink our approach to tourism and start conserving it for the future generations. And as we speak, the remotest region on the planet, the Antarctic, needs our urgent help and here’s why.

Why is there a spike in tourists in the Antarctic?

According to the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators, 56,168 travellers visited the Antarctic in 2018-2019 alone. This number is a 53 percent increase from the 36,702 travellers that visited the region during the 2014-2015 tourist season.

There are several reasons for this massive spike. According to a study by Baron Consulting and Wealth-X, luxury travel is a USD 1.54 trillion market. Luxury travellers are intrigued by the unknown and the Antarctic is as remote as it gets. Steven Cowpe, who led expeditions for Antarctica Bound, a United Kingdom-based travel agency, said, “You feel like you’re at the end of the planet because it’s so wild and when you come back, you feel like you have achieved something great, even if you’re not an explorer.”

But this is extremely devastating for the environment. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Antarctica is presently losing six times more ice annually than it did back in the 1970s. Scientists and observers have warned that this is adding immense pressure to the region along with other activities like commercial fishing for krill, toothfish and other species.

To make things further tricky, no individual government has the power to set the rules in this remote region. Human activity in the Antarctic is under the governance of the Antarctic Treaty system. However, the day to day tourism is managed by the tour operators themselves. 

Apart from this, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), a network of more than 15 conservation groups serves as an observer to the Antarctic Treaty system. In this piece, we explore the origins of this body and what were the challenges they faced then and now. Also, we will dive into why the rest of the world needs to wake up and participate in a collective effort to balance the thin line between tourism and the environment in the Antarctic.

The fight for balance began in the 70s

Claire Christian, Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) takes us through the origins of the ASOC and how the body actively helps in preserving the Antarctic and the matters concerning the region.

She said, “The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) was founded in 1978 during an important decade for the worldwide environmental movement. Public awareness of environmental issues was growing worldwide, and important legislation to protect the environment had been passed in many countries. In the mid-1970s, James Barnes, an environmental lawyer, became aware through some of his contacts that Parties to the Antarctic Treaty were secretly negotiating a framework for mineral and gas prospecting in Antarctica. As more and more environmental organisations connected and discussed this issue, it became increasingly clear that global action was needed to prevent the world’s last great wilderness from being destroyed.”

ASOC’s initial objectives were to convince governments to conclude negotiation of the world’s first ‘ecosystem as a whole’ treaty on fishing; prevent oil, gas, and minerals development in the Antarctic by blocking the ratification of the proposed Minerals Convention; and to open up the Antarctic Treaty System to include participation by NGOs and specialist international bodies. 

Christian explained, “ASOC’s early campaigns focused on dragging the secret minerals framework negotiations out into the open. At the time, even non-Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty (who have signed the Treaty but do not have decision-making power) were not able to even observe the negotiations, and they had to wait for Parties to release any documents produced. ASOC managed to shake up this system by obtaining a secret copy of one of the early drafts, which they distributed publicly. By briefing developing countries such as Malaysia, India, and Brazil on the secret negotiations, ASOC member organisations were able to spark debates at the United Nations.” 

Also, campaigners drew attention to the sloppy waste disposal practices at scientific research stations, and to French plans to dynamite several Antarctic islands and displace many penguin colonies to build an airstrip. 

“Negotiations on the minerals conventions continued throughout the 1980s. But then a major breakthrough occurred when Australia and France decided not to ratify the agreed Minerals Convention due to substantial public pressure. Without the buy-in of all the decision-making Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, the Convention was effectively dead. Australia and France proposed instead that a framework of environmental regulations be enacted by Treaty Parties, and in 1991 the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was agreed. The Protocol entered into force in 1998 and bans mineral and gas exploration and mining, although it contains a provision allowing the Protocol to be reviewed in 2048. The Protocol stated that the Antarctic Treaty Parties were committed ‘to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment’ – quite a change from just a few years earlier,” added Christian. 

Another major victory for Antarctic environmental protection occurred in 1981 when the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was ratified. Christian mentioned that one of its key priorities at the moment is the creation of comprehensive systems of terrestrial and marine protected areas in line with a growing body of evidence that 30 percent or more of the world’s lands and oceans need to be protected to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem health.”

What constitutes the Antarctic Treaty System?

The main components of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) are the Antarctic Treaty/Environmental Protocol and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR Convention. 

Claire explained the various components of the treaty, “The AT and Protocol are primarily concerned with activities on the continent such as tourism and scientific research (although they do have the ability to create protected areas that include marine areas) while the CAMLR Convention is focused on regulating activities that occur in the ocean. In practice this means primarily fishing since the IMO also has competence over high seas areas such as the Southern Ocean and can institute regulations, for example, the Polar Code which covers the Arctic and Antarctic.” 

During the time of ASOC,  several challenges have risen in the past as well as in the present, and Christian dived into how the body helps resolve the same.

“One of the main challenges for ASOC is that the ATS relies on consensus, meaning that all countries that have signed a treaty and obtained decision making status (i.e., under these treaties it is possible to sign without obtaining the right to participate in decision making) must agree on decisions. This means that countries with large differences in their approach to conservation must all agree and that can take a lot of work! How we’ve approached it is to try to build relationships with Antarctic governance countries and work towards a shared understanding of conservation policy, while developing our own expertise on Antarctic issues.”

Initially, when environmental NGOs started getting interested in Antarctic conservation, it was very difficult for ASOC to access official treaty meetings, most of which took place behind closed doors. 

“Hence, we invested in building a strong NGO coalition of expert campaigners and eventually became officially recognised observers to those meetings. This meant we could formally present our policy recommendations and participate more actively in discussions (although since we are not a country we cannot participate in decision making). This has really helped us influence decisions,” she mentioned.

Another issue that rose in the past is that many countries did not believe it was possible to prevent oil and gas exploitation in Antarctica (a major campaign goal of ASOC at one time). However, ASOC helped raise the ambition of those countries and made the Protocol and its moratorium on mining a reality by educating the public on the importance of Antarctic conservation and by bringing transparency to deliberations about the proposed minerals convention. 

“We play a similar role today by keeping the world aware of Antarctic protection issues – our view is that Antarctica and its surrounding Southern Ocean are our last great wilderness and they are the heritage of all humankind,” Christian added.

Challenges For Tourism in the Antarctic 

Christian mentioned that currently, the pandemic has severely interrupted Antarctic tourism and assuming the industry returns to normal at some stage, the main challenge is growth in numbers of visitors. 

“There are limited areas in the Antarctic suitable for tourist visits, so even if the continent is large, it is very possible that there could be some crowding and associated environmental consequences. The Antarctic Treaty has developed few regulations for tourism, so the industry is largely voluntarily self- regulated under the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). If companies decide to no longer participate in IAATO, there could thus be significant issues with respect to environmental protection. To tackle this, tour operators can continue to work through IAATO to minimise the environmental impact of their operations, and can support measures through the Antarctic Treaty to ensure that the industry continues in its current form. That means that most tourists come on relatively small ships and strictly adhere to site guidelines designed to minimise impact on wildlife and their habitats.”

Tour operators can also support monitoring and research that can help identify potential impacts of tourist activity. Finally, they can support the designation of protected areas (terrestrial and marine) that will ensure long-term protection of the Antarctic environment. 

Also Read: The Importance Of Marketing Conservation Based Tourism

When it comes to travellers, Christian emphasised that they should make sure to travel only with an IAATO member and follow all the rules when in the Antarctic. “You can also look into offsetting the carbon footprint of your trip. And assuming you return home from your trip with a new love of the Antarctic and its magnificent species, make sure to support policies that effectively address climate change. Climate change is the biggest threat to the Antarctic environment and we all have a role to play in the solution!” 

David Attenborough had recently expressed in an interview that the ice is melting between regions in the Antarctic which will give rise to ships that will carry people from one place to a place they’ve never seen before. He called this a great leap for tourism, but devastating for the environment.

Christian spills her thoughts on the same and how it’s a challenge because Antarctica is so amazing so she completely understands why people want to visit it! 

“At the same time there is an environmental impact of visiting there. I suppose I would say again that we all have a role to play and people have to decide for themselves what their personal values are and how they will contribute to reducing carbon emissions and protecting our planet’s future. Nobody is perfect but we all have a responsibility to be informed citizens and do our part, and that includes putting pressure on our leaders to enact policies that will reduce the threat of climate change,” she stressed.

It is time the rest of the world starts paying attention

It is important that governments across the world support policies that keep the impact of human activities in the Antarctic low. ASOC advocates for large portions of the land and sea (at least 30 percent) to be strictly protected in officially designated protected areas. 

Christian shared, “We know that setting areas aside and limiting human activities in those areas preserves biodiversity and helps ecosystems stay resilient in the face of climate change. These decisions may be unpopular because people think Antarctica is a big place and there won’t be much environmental impact if we have more tourism, fishing, and scientific research stations.”

“But Antarctica is very sensitive to impacts – a footprint can last for years – and we’ve damaged it in the past through whaling, overfishing and pollution. We have the chance now to be proactive and make better decisions in the interest of long-term protection, and in doing so we can demonstrate that it is possible for humans to have a more harmonious relationship with nature. 

She concluded by mentioning that if the global pandemic and climate crisis have taught us anything, it’s that trying to clean up our mistakes is extremely hard. 

“For too long we’ve asked how much damage nature can take – how much pollution can we put in our air and water, how much habitat can we destroy before animals go extinct. Maybe now we can start asking instead what nature needs to thrive and how we can make that happen. I believe that this shift in attitude is as important as specific actions and policies, because we can’t make effective decisions if we persist in outdated ways of thinking about our relationship to the natural world.”

These systems have worked well since they were set up but there is a fear that the increasing tourist numbers can push these systems to a breaking point. It is extremely crucial that the consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty system i.e governments like those of the United States, France, New Zealand, Argentina, etc, must work swiftly together to not only manage tourism but also protect the nature and wildlife of the Antarctic before it is too late.

We, as travellers, too can be more mindful of the carbon emissions we are offsetting and choose options that conserve and encourage the environment you’re visiting, not further degrade it. 

Also Read: How Sustainable Hospitality Can Help Combat Climate Change

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