Antarctic tourism: the pros and cons

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An endless expanse of ice beneath a clear blue sky, emperor penguins and Weddell seals. It’s an unforgettable experience, a trip to Antarctica. The new tourist season is getting underway.

Nowadays, about 50,000 tourists each year make the journey to the South Pole. What until a few years ago was an expensive adventure, is becoming increasingly affordable. Can the vulnerable continent deal with the influx of visitors?

In the Netherlands alone, there are around 20 tour operators offering travellers the holiday of their lives. It costs about 8,000 euros, but for that you get a relatively environmentally friendly trip. The Antarctic Treaty obliges operators to get special permits for their ships to enter the region. Special conditions must be met. These range from a secure onboard waste disposal system to special airtight packaging for food.

Expansion looming
Up to now, the ships have carried a maximum of about 150 passengers. They are only allowed to disembark at a limited number of stops which have to be agreed beforehand. This could be to take a closer look at penguins and seals, or to make a spectacular trip across the ice. But, says World Wildlife Fund polar expert Gert Polet, expansion is looming.

“There’s a trend towards increasingly large cruise ships getting permits to sail into the region. If a vessel with more than 2,000 passengers gets into problems, it’s very difficult to evacuate those people. In 2007, the Arctic Explorer foundered. It was an enormous job to get the 150 passengers off. It would be a terrible carry-on if there were 2,000 people floating around on rafts. You could also get oil leaks. It’s not possible to clean it up so far away from all the infrastructure.”

At the moment, large cruise liners aren’t allowed to put passengers ashore. The people only get to see Antarctica as a white expanse of ice stretching into the distance. There’s a lively debate going on about whether large-scale Antarctic cruises are a good idea. Apart from the risks, they are said to add little to people’s perception of the region’s unique character. A cruise along the Antarctic coast does not inspire people to champion conservation in the region.

Costa del Antarctica?
Despite all the conservation rules, little research is being done into the effects on the region of the ever-increasing tourism, says Machiel Lamers who did a PhD at Wageningen University on the subject. Of course, Antarctica isn't becoming a new Costa del Sol, but the construction of a number of permanent guesthouses could be a first step:

“There are no regulations to rule this out, and there are things going on in this direction. This is a scenario that we’re taking into serious consideration and there are a number of countries that are willing to do something about it.”

Mr Lamers believes eventual regulations are inevitable: a ban on hotels, rules governing activities on land – and about a maximum number of visitors.

“You could organise it in the form of visitors’ days. You could have visiting rights which tour operators could trade between themselves. That would be a way to determine who could come to Antarctica and in which season, and how many people they could bring.”

One benefit of this kind of system would be that the money generated could be used for research into the effects on the environment.

Although the aim is not to fence the Antarctic off, we have to be careful about how we use it, says Mr Polet. He also thinks there are worse dangers for the region than tourism.

“Climate change is going much faster in Antarctica than elsewhere in the world. Species such as emperor penguins are suffering the effects. They nest on the ice, and that is breaking up more often. Sometimes half an emperor penguin colony can come adrift. Parents can no longer find their young. These kinds of problems are far bigger than the number of tourists currently visiting the Antarctic."

A trip to the South Pole is still so exclusive that tour operators keep an eye on each other’s behaviour. They give their customers the impression that it’s an unexplored wilderness. Bumping into a rival tour group, let alone litter on the white ice, just doesn’t fit in with that picture.