Tourists to Antarctica increased from 4,800 in 1991-92 to 12,248 in the 2000-01 season, effectively doubling the number of Antarctic visitors in less than a decade. Over 100 new sites to tourism have been opened up, and there is an increasing interest in “mass tourism” approaches, with larger, general-purpose vessels replacing the traditional smaller vessels, use of aircraft for inter-continental transportation, and even discussion of “hotel” facilities ashore.

With Antarctic tourism becoming a lucrative business, larger tour companies and multinationals have begun to replace smaller operators. Industry sources recently predicted that by the 2005-2006 season, there would be more than 29,000 tourists to the continent. This statistic would more than double the number of visitors in the 2000-01 season and would be a six-fold increase in tourists from the 1991-92 season.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) that is comprised of over 200 conservation organizations from 47 countries and committed to protect the Antarctic environment warns that flora and fauna could be irreversibly damaged by increasing tourist activities in the region. A big concern in Antarctica is cumulative impact  the ecological effects of repeat human activities to an area over extended periods of time. There are also concerns about direct environmental impacts, for example, as a result of an oil spill at sea or the introduction of an invasive pathogen.

ASOC points out that Antarctica cannot be dealt with like any other destination because its natural environment is unique, and the political, juridical and administrative context is entirely different from other parts of the world. International bodies and the public need to pay special attention to this region also because there are no local organizations that could monitor developments and take action if destructive activities occur.

It is alarming that the member states of the Antarctic Treaty system are now giving the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) virtually free reign to control and manage tourism, despite the fact that this business association is the cause of most of the problems associated with Antarctic tourism. Without a stringent framework to regulate the industry, however, hopes to keep this continent free of the environmental destruction that has happened elsewhere in the pursuit of limitless tourism growth can probably be buried.

To help raise awareness of the important issues and concerns in relation to the booming “eco” or “adventure tourism” in Antarctica, we are sharing in this Clearinghouse issue an information paper that ASOC presented at the 14th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network (TWN)

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia


A Paper by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) Tabled at the XXIV Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2001

Tourism  The Global Industry

Tourism is the fastest growing global industry. Its economic power is enormous, and generates ever-greater political influence at national and international levels. Governments, associated industries and presumed beneficiary communities see tourism as a route to economic prosperity and are often strong advocates for further tourism development. Those directly involved in the industry are invariably advocates for continual growth of the industry, simply out of self-interest.

But tourism often evokes a further justification  that beyond the commercial benefit it is a public good, and a contribution towards the emergence of global civil society in its breaking down of national boundaries. Tourism can be projected as an expression of a global civil right, whereby those individuals with the means to purchase a trip a priori have access anywhere, anytime, with as few constraints as possible.

On the other side of the ledger are concerns about the negative effects of tourism. These include disjunction of existing social and economic systems, shifts in power relationships, and environmental effects (often substantial and irreversible). The ultimate tragedy - the paradox of tourism - occurs when tourism destroys the very thing it came to see.

Whether the effects of tourism are viewed as negative or positive depends of course on one’s place in the scheme of things. Generally, however, some mechanisms exist for adjudicating between them, or for putting in place the means to do so. In practice, this may not be done, and one may or may not be happy about the particular balance, but in principle the issue is tractable through conventional means (legal, administrative, other civic or market mechanisms).

In Antarctica, however, a quite different situation exists. This paper discusses tourism in this region and how the usual control methods found elsewhere do not operate in Antarctica. By tourism, we are referring to expeditions conducted by commercial private sector and/or government entities.

Tourism in Antarctica

Human activity of any sort only goes back 200 years in the Antarctic, and Antarctic tourism only started in the 1960s. It really took off in the early 1990s, with 4,800 passengers in 1990/91 (the year the Protocol was adopted), to over 6,500 passengers in the 1992/93 season, climbing steadily ever since to over 14,500 by 1999/2000. This is a steeply climbing curve and indications are that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. In 1998, the World Tourism Organization reported that cruise holidays are the fastest growing component of world tourism. Some in the industry are already anticipating that very large numbers (100,000+) will be travelling to Antarctica in the near future.

Hitherto, the overwhelming majority (+95%) of these tourist passengers have been carried to the Antarctic on small to medium-sized vessels (often ice-class vessels), and spent their entire Antarctic tour (characteristically 10 days to 3 weeks) aboard these vessels, with periodic landings at coastal sites. This pattern of activity is now changing. The Soviet-era fleet that invisibly subsidized the major expansion of the past decade may be nearing the end of its operational life. It is unclear yet whether the industry will make the investment in new second-generation vessels of comparable type. The scale of the industry appears to be ushering in new patterns of ownership, with larger companies and multinationals beginning to replace the smaller owner/operator arrangements as the industry grows. Scale is also reflected in increasing interest in “mass tourism” approaches - very much larger, general purpose vessels (owned by major global tourism interests), use of aircraft for inter-continental transportation, consequential discussion of “hotel” facilities ashore, etc.

The Antarctic tourism “experience” is diversifying away from the historic model, driven by market demands and growing competition within the industry. At one end, the mass-market approach promises a large throughput of people, whose Antarctic experience may be largely vicarious. In parallel, specialist niche marketing  ‘adventure tourism’, special-interest events, guided risk experiences  is developing new types of high-end customers.

This is the classic pattern of tourist development anywhere in the world. Given the present reality, nothing about the Antarctic situation will of itself limit this (except perhaps an accident costing many lives), given the technical capabilities of the likely operators and the potential for making money.

Antarctica’s Singular Context

The tourism industry is developing rapidly in Antarctica as if it were just anywhere else. ASOC argues that the Antarctic is not the same as everywhere else and that universal trends in behaviour need not be accepted there as a fait accompli. We also argue that it is mistaken in fact to treat the Antarctic as if it were anywhere else. The natural environment is substantially different to most other parts of the earth. Critically, the political (and resultant juridical and administrative) context are entirely unlike anywhere else.

As many national programmes are looking to demonstrate their commercial relevance at home, domestic economic pressures have increasingly driven Antarctic policy in a number of member states. Additionally, the unresolved sovereignty  and consequential complex juridical situation  means that the emergence of an ever larger and more powerful tourism industry poses real risks. There exists a temptation for states to attempt to strengthen their sovereignty claims as they consider stakes in the two major Antarctic industries  fishing and tourism. Sovereignty has the potential to move from an abstract concept to one of direct connection with immediate commercial and financial interests.

One danger is that as commercial self-interest becomes the organizing principle for Antarctic states, there is ever more risk of Antarctica becoming the object of international discord, which the Antarctic Treaty sought to avert. If we are to minimize this risk, then states will have to constrain some activities. There are precedents for doing so  the demilitarization provisions in the Antarctic Treaty, and the minerals prohibition in the Protocol.

The thin juridical environment in Antarctica means that Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been left as the sole gatekeeper for Antarctic access. This is not a role EIA plays in many other parts of the world. Properly designed and used, EIAs are often prepared through a participatory process in which there is some determination that an activity is justifiable, desirable, socially acceptable, etc. on broader criteria than merely its environmental effects. There are no broader criteria in the present international Antarctic agreements, and ASOC is unaware of any domestic implementing legislation that requires this. ASOC is proposing that states seriously contemplate the benefits of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), a strategic-decision making process that first determines which activities would be acceptable given the need to protect a range of values associated with an area. SEA encompasses the breadth of impact over large areas in light of past, present, and future activities by all actors in the Antarctic. Recently the European Union adopted the SEA as a decision-making process to help evaluate regional and sectoral environmental impacts.

Other mechanisms apply in the case of activities supported by national programmes  ethical committee approvals tend to weed out unacceptable research proposals, and logistic and funding processes provide further review. Ultimately, since these activities are funded from the public purse, they are administratively and/or politically accountable. Where they seem in conflict with the public interest, it is in fact possible to prevent the activity from proceeding.

But this is not the case with tourist industry proposals in Antarctica. Unless constrained by the EIA process (and, significantly, not one tourist EIA has resulted in a decision to substantially modify  far less cancel proposed activities), tourist proposals proceed without further ado. A proposal to establish a casino ashore in Antarctica might very well be subject to nothing more than an EIA for the actual construction and operation of the physical structure  with no consideration of whether this is a worthy activity in Antarctica, or the larger implications of the concomitant infrastructure development. Activities such as this may not be far off, and thus some basis for establishing the value of a proposed activity, and not merely its environmental impact is essential.

A further complication is that, notwithstanding its generic application, the EIA structure is drawn from the experience of national Antarctic programme activities. It is not well designed for addressing some sorts of tourist activity, or the collective effects of the individual components of the tourism industry.

“Antarctic Ambassadors”

It is asserted by some that Antarctic tourism creates “ambassadors for Antarctica”. The presumption is that visitors necessarily develop a strong sense of identity with the region, and thereafter act as advocates for its preservation.

It is undoubtedly true that some tourists respond in this way. However, there is no empirical evidence that this is widespread even at present, and much evidence from elsewhere in the world that such responses are not guaranteed to survive upon returning home. Awareness does not automatically convert to effective action. In the case of mass tourism, the evidence from elsewhere in the world is that personal engagement, with a consequential sense of moral obligation to act, largely disappears.

The desirability of generating wider public awareness of the values of the Antarctic is obvious, but it is not at all clear that tourism is even the best way to do this, far less that the costs of tourism can be justified on the basis that some tourists may become advocates for protecting the region. ASOC’s experience, particularly in the anti-CRAMRA [Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities] campaign, suggests that thousands of citizens joined the campaign in support of Antarctic conservation despite their never having visited Antarctica nor having any intention of visiting.

Consequences of Antarctic Tourism

The environmental impacts associated with tourist activity are generally unlikely to differ in kind from those resulting from national programme activities, although there will be differences in pattern and intensity.

What really characterises the impacts that arise from tourist activity is the purposes for which they are caused. This seems to ASOC to be a major consideration  as yet unreflected in any binding Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) obligations. It is one thing to recognise that in the process of acquiring information on (say) UV-B levels in Antarctica, or patterns of past climate, one may generate environmental impacts, and quite another to have equivalent impacts occasioned in the pursuit of private (perhaps trivial) benefits for particular tourists. In the former case, the wider interest may very well justify those adverse environmental impacts (subject of course to an obligation to avoid, minimise or mitigate these). Given that Parties have committed themselves to comprehensive protection of Antarctica, and designated it “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, a different calculus should be applied in the case of impacts arising through trivial activities, and activities whose raison d’etre is commercial profit.

Tourism also ushers in changes of attitude towards Antarctica (perhaps permanent shifts of attitude). ASOC is concerned that one shift is towards a belief that Antarctica should be dealt with like the rest of the world  just another popular tourist destination, rather than as a special region deserving special protection. As in any other tourism destination, some attractions are short-termed. Last years’ Antarctic experience is not sufficient any longer. New experiences and thrills are required, and new infrastructure and service providers are needed to satisfy those. Once on this slippery slope, it is increasingly difficult to get off.

Technological advances have made access easier, and opened up opportunities for new sorts of activities once there. As technological barriers to tourism break down, some other sorts of restraint become necessary if the numbers are not to climb without end, and if the Antarctic is not to become a Theme Park for those with the money and toys to make it such.

The most profound and damaging attitudinal change could occur at the level of Antarctic institutions. The dominant values of cooperation and conservation can be undermined or replaced by the commercial use of the continent.

Tourist Management Subcontracted to the Tourism Industry

It often appears as if the ATS has largely subcontracted tourist management to the industry’s own group  presently the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). Tourism has been both encouraged by Parties, and evolved as an autonomous sphere of Antarctic activity. IAATO has emerged as a group with a de facto veto on policy that might adversely affect the tourist industry. In many ways the reality seems to be the emergence of Antarctica as an area essentially free of any controls beyond those established by the industry itself.

A group with a direct pecuniary interest in developing Antarctic tourism can reasonably be expected to promote tourism. Accordingly, a more sophisticated Antarctic tourism policy  one which is sensitive to other values and other interests  cannot be left to the tourism industry alone. The very basis of the ATS’s confidence in IAATO  the fact that it was a small tight group, with a commitment to particular environmental standards  is precisely what is unstable as the industry grows. At some point either IAATO abandons these standards in order to remain dominant in the industry, or a range of other Antarctic tourist groups will emerge (and probably seek comparable levels of access and participation to IAATO). Either way, the future looks problematic.


Ten years have elapsed since the adoption of the Madrid Protocol, which demonstrated the signatories’ commitment to long-term conservation in Antarctica. During that time tourism has been the fastest growing Antarctic activity, both in logistic and commercial terms. There have been some initiatives to address tourism, including some actions undertaken by IAATO itself, and some work on cumulative impacts. These initiatives have largely been limited in scope, have not significantly changed the characteristics of Antarctic tourism, and have followed rather than anticipated developments in the industry. The fundamental problem with tourism remains not only its potential environmental impacts, but also its effect on Antarctic institutions and on the perception of, and attitudes to, Antarctica as a special wilderness region.

ASOC submits that the time has now come for the ATS to seriously debate future moderation and practical management of Antarctic tourism. Although some uncertainties remain about the future shape of the industry, it is now possible to discern its broad outline and trajectory. If left to its own, this will have an irreversible impact on the Antarctic. ASOC suggests that the following actions by the ATS are now appropriate. We urge that the regular agenda for Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings be modified to allow proper consideration of such steps, beginning at this meeting in St Petersburg:

*     A cap on the overall level of tourist activity in Antarctica should be set for a period of time well into the future  perhaps 20 years. This is justified in order to protect the natural values and political stability of the region.

*     This cap should involve not only limits on the total number of tourists entering the region on a yearly basis, but constraints on the means by which those people are transported to and through the region, the sites they visit, and the types of activity acceptable once they are there.

*     Land-based infrastructure (accommodation, permanent airstrips, fuel storage facilities, etc) should not be developed or (where already in place) used for tourism.

*     Inter-continental transportation should be confined for a reviewable period to ice-capable vessels meeting high international standards, and carrying no more than a specified maximum number of passengers and crew.

*     Inter-continental air transport of tourists directly to Antarctica should not be authorised for a reviewable period since it creates open-ended pressure to develop mass-tourism and requires infrastructure ashore.

*     Parties should provide themselves with the legal basis for prohibiting their citizens and operating entities from participating in expeditions organised in states that have not ratified the Protocol, and which therefore lack the capacity to require compliance with prior EIA and other Protocol obligations by that expedition. No Party should permit use of its domestic ports or facilities, or visits to its Antarctic facilities or historic huts and monuments under its effective control, by expeditions organised in states that are not parties to the Protocol.

*     Tourist activities at a sub-regional level (eg: Antarctic Peninsula, Ross Sea, East Antarctica, etc.) warrant Strategic Environmental Assessment at periodic (perhaps decadal) intervals which might, inter alia, determine that tourism is restricted to particular areas (or excluded from particular areas) in order to protect other recognised values in Antarctica.

*     Individual tourist expeditions warrant Environmental Impact Assessment at IEE and CEE level. Such evaluations should be required to address the full range of obligations, including the obligation to address cumulative impact.

*     Because of the important differences in the patterns of activity between national Antarctic programmes and tourist expeditions, and the fact that the Protocol’s EIA processes were developed on the basis of norms in the former only, serious attention needs to be given to how baseline information about sites likely to be visited by tourist operators will be obtained, and how monitoring of actual impacts of visitation will be measured.

*     National authorising bodies should, when assessing environmental evaluations, give serious attention to the option of “not proceeding”, which is in principle unlikely ever to be selected by the proponent of the activity, particularly one which has sold tickets to clients on the presumption of proceeding. To date no tourist EIA has resulted in a decision not to proceed.

*     Ordinarily, it should not be considered desirable that tourist expeditions be the first to visit an area. This would avoid the familiar current situation of it being impossible to determine either the initial reference state of the environment or the likely effects of visitation.

*     Intra-continental air operations should be subject to more rigorous standards. The best available advice on minimum overflight and lateral displacement distances should be followed, irrespective of the nationality of the operating company. (An example of present best practice is represented by the Australian Antarctic Division guidelines of 750m (2500ft) for single-engine helicopters and 1500m (5000ft) for twin-engine helicopters, whereas practice varies widely on this type of rule among various companies and states).

*     Consideration should be given to the use of official observers on tourist vessels, whose mandate would include reporting on compliance with Protocol obligations and filing of regular reports at both national and CEP levels.

Given action of the type outlined above, mandated tourist activity in the region within these constraints would continue to constitute a legitimate use of the region. The steps that ASOC is urging be considered and adopted would help ensure that Antarctica’s long-term values are protected, and that competing uses are studied more carefully before certain types of development are allowed. Development by default would not be acceptable. Ultimately, these types of decisions are required in order to give full weight to the letter and spirit of both the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol.

For more information, visit the website of the Antarctic and Southern Coalition at or contact Beth Clark, the Director of the Washington-based Antarctica Project, email: