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Will Tourists Trash Antarctica?

March 26, 2013

Conservationists are worried that the growing numbers of visitors, and their desire to do more than sit around on ships, might mar one of the few remaining pristine environments on earth:

Tourism is rebounding here five years after the financial crisis stifled what had been a burgeoning industry. And it’s not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in “adventure tourism” like skydiving and scuba diving under the ever-sunlit skies of a Southern Hemisphere summer.

In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, that tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be an exceptionally long way off.

The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done. An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and neither of those is yet in force.

“I think there’s been a foot off the pedal in recent years,” said Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions. “If it takes five years, 10 years to bring even what you agree into force, it’s very difficult to micromanage these sorts of developments.”

Antarctic tourism has grown from fewer than 2,000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08. Then the numbers plummeted, bottoming out at fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12.

Humans have an unyielding desire for self-gratification: to go new places, see new things, impress their friends at cocktail parties. And they rarely think about–or care much about–the subtle ways in which their presence affects the very ecosystems they have come to admire. They love it to death.

Whenever I visit one of the world’s natural wonders I feel both awe and sadness–sadness at how crowds and commercialism have devalued and demeaned the site. The latest place I experienced this was Niagara Falls, which is a mesmerizing natural feature as long as you keep your eyes on the astounding flow of water and don’t let them stray to the shores, where casinos, chain hotels, fast food franchises, malls, and schlock have overgrown both banks.

Antarctica has been protected from this invasion by the Southern Ocean. But every barrier eventually and increasingly yields to the lure of commercial profit. That means more noise, more pollution, more garbage, more displacement and irritation for the wildlife, and a greater potential for inadvertent disaster like fuel spills. Whatever regulations and guidelines that do get created, if any do, will favor the idea of easy tourism. And no doubt we’ll hear the argument that to save and protect Antarctica first we have to love it. And to love it we have to see it.

I would love to go to Antarctica, but to me the over-riding value that humans should take with them into the wild is: do no harm, leave no trace. That will make it harder for thousands, or millions, of tourists to access remote ecosystems. But if we can’t go to a place without destroying or degrading it, we shouldn’t go at all. Seeing and immersing yourself in a spectacular natural environment is not a right. It is not there simply for your amusement. Going into the deep wild is a privilege and it comes with a responsibility to protect.

So my regulation for Antarctic tourism would be very simple: no engines. Sail there, and paddle once you arrive. Earn the right the visit. You won’t trash the place you are admiring, and I guarantee the experience will be far more rewarding.

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