Biggest threats of tourism in Antarctica?
While tourists may only only spend a relatively small time on landings, usually just a few hours, it is by its nature relatively "high-impact" time - compared to a scientist or support worker who spend most of their time on a permanently or semi-permanently occupied base. Tourists also by their nature will want to visit the most picturesque and wildlife rich areas of Antarctica. Such areas that are easily accessible by the kind of small boats that take tourists from their ship to shore are relatively rare in Antarctica, so despite its enormous size, tourists become concentrated in a few areas where most landings take place. A tour ship carries far more people than the entire compliment of many Antarctic bases.
Those national programmes that are supplied by ship (as the majority are) have relatively few visits of those ships, 2-3 over 5 months is typical. In the season, the great majority of all shipping activity in Antarctica is of tour ships that go back and forth to South America every 2 weeks or less. There have been accidents with ships being grounded on uncharted rocks and there have been oil-spills. With the best safe-guards in the world (and it has to be said that marine regulations for Antarctic ships, both statuary and self-imposed are as good as they get) the more ships there are, the more accidents there will be.
Tourism in Antarctica is at present self-regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) founded in 1991 and currently with 122 members. This is an organization that applies strict guidelines to its member tour operators and ships. Such guidelines limit the size of the ships that can cruise Antarctic waters and also how many people can be landed at sites around Antarctica. So far IAATO is perceived as being successful in its aims and in regulation for Antarctic protection - though there are always those who would have no tourism at all.
Another threat comes from smaller expeditions that are becoming increasingly common by individuals and small parties. Antarctica requires careful planning and a series of fail-safe rescue procedures if anyone gets into difficulty. These smaller expeditions sometimes fail to do this adequately and resort to "humanitarian" requests for aid from shipping or nearby national bases when they get into difficulty. A few years ago for example a small helicopter (totally unsuitable for the task) crashed into the sea off the Antarctic Peninsula requiring rescue and an attempt to fly across Antarctica via the pole in a small aircraft ended with the aircraft crashing and the pilot being rescued by nearby base personnel.
There is no guarantee that derelict or crashed vehicles left by private expeditioners will be removed from Antarctica as they should be under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty.
The Negative Impacts of Visitors
Invasive species - accidentally bringing in insects or seeds on boots, clothes, in food, cargo etc.
Impact on breeding birds - being made anxious by an influx of people that may cause them to abandon their nest or vacate an area all together if regularly disturbed. There are many records of birds that previously nested around Antarctic bases no longer doing so due to the constant activity around such places. The general voluntary code is that visitors should not go closer than 5m to any wildlife.
Erosion or disturbance of fragile environments - many feet walking over the same piece of ground and routes will leave paths and other scars.
Oil spills from ships and boats - there may be a spill due to hitting ice and rupturing a holding tank, or if the vessel sinks, all the polluting fluids will eventually escape.
The Positive Effects of Visitors
Tourists become ambassadors for Antarctica - A personal note this, how or why should anyone care about a place that hardly anyone knows of or visits? The more voices there are speaking on behalf of Antarctica if development or extraction of mineral resources is considered, the better. Remember this is a place where no-one lives permanently, so there are no native residents to speak up for it.
- As travel to Antarctica is expensive, tourists tend to be more affluent and consequently more educated and influential than the average tourist profile. They are more likely to be receptive to the message of conservation, a message which is reinforced by the educational atmosphere on board the ships where the majority of tourism in Antarctica is based.