The fragile ecosystem of the Southern Hemisphere is susceptible to negative impacts due to the rapidly increasing number of tourists visiting the region.
According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), during the 2022-2023 season, the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere recorded a record-breaking number of visitors, with 105,331 people. This summer, approximately 32,730 individuals arrived in Antarctica by cruise ships, while 71,258 tourists departed. Experts predict that the number of visitors will continue to rise in the future.
Ianenkov, an engineer and souvenir shop owner at the Bellingshausen Antarctic research station, stated that the small shops in the Southern Hemisphere are always crowded with tourists who come to visit and purchase items. The store sells souvenirs such as refrigerator magnets, keychains priced at $5 each, and fur-lined hats priced at $100. Ianenkov shared that his income, as well as that of his colleagues, depends largely on affluent tourists who visit Antarctica. On average, tourists spend around $12,700 per trip.
Some people visit Antarctica for scientific research purposes, while others come as tourists to climb ice mountains, go skiing, or enjoy helicopter sightseeing. Antarctic tourism is considered a luxury experience for financially privileged individuals. Among the visitors who arrived in the continent during the early summer, more than half were from the United States, followed by Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Tourists incur significant expenses to reach Antarctica, including airfare, clothing, equipment, and vaccinations. Additionally, the region offers unique experiences not found in everyday life. Tourists can witness surreal floating icebergs, observe cold-adapted wildlife from close distances, and visit the Fildes Bay from the Chilean Air Force base. Most visitors flock to the Southern Hemisphere during the summer when the weather is less icy. Additionally, activities such as kayaking and bone-chilling scuba diving in the Southern Ocean are popular among tourists.
Dr. Daniela Liggett, an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand specializing in Antarctic tourism management, emphasized the significant impact of increasing tourist numbers on the Antarctic environment. Seasonal tourism and the fragile ecosystem of the polar region face an overwhelming influx of visitors during the summer and a sudden decline during the winter.
“During peak season, Fildes Bay becomes prone to overcrowding with long queues of tourist vessels, fuel spills, and marine vessel collisions. Some historical sites have even been vandalized,” said Dr. Liggett.
Researchers have found higher levels of black carbon in snow at popular tourist destinations due to ship emissions, leading to accelerated ice melting. From 2016 to 2020, the increasing number of tourists caused the loss of approximately 75 tons of snow in Antarctica.
Dr. Luis Miguel Pardo, a Chilean biologist, highlighted that while Antarctic tourism brings economic benefits from the smokeless industry, he also expressed concerns about the introduction of invasive species when the region, which is uninhabited, is continuously visited by people.
Several alien species have already appeared on the peninsula, and combined with climate change and warmer temperatures, they may lead to negative consequences in the future.
Antarctic tourism began to develop in the 1950s. In 1991, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was established to promote safe and environmentally responsible tourism in the Antarctic region.
IAATO has strict guidelines regarding the protection of the wildlife habitat, waste management to avoid damaging vegetation, and the prevention of introducing invasive species to Antarctica.
In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) was established, providing a legally binding framework to regulate international relations among nations in the only continent on Earth without indigenous inhabitants.
The current challenge for the ATS in Antarctica is the lack of a unified agreement to limit the rapidly growing tourism industry. Most activities are still permitted, and there are no annual limits on the number of tourists who can visit.