Protecting Antarctica from the tourist invasion

Elephant Seal enjoying the ice
Elephant Seal enjoying the ice (Photo: Martin Tuxworth)
Leopard seal on the ice

25 March 2004

Australia is leading the push to ensure that the rapidly increasingly tourism in Antarctica does not become an environmental threat or put others' lives at risk when adventurers set off ill-prepared.

At a special Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting of Experts in Norway this week, the Australian delegation led by the Australian Antarctic Division will present Australia's vision for an Antarctic tourism policy.

Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Heritage Dr Sharman Stone said Australia had long been concerned about the potential environmental effects of unregulated tourism and the safety and self-sufficiency of adventure tourism, and cruising in Antarctica.

"Over the past decade tourist visits to Antarctica have doubled and tourist vessels operating in Antarctica have increased from 12 to 47," Dr Stone said.

"There is every indication that this interest in Antarctica will continue to grow. We must make sure we do not destroy the world's last great wilderness."

At the Norway meeting, Australia will argue for the following to be put in place:

  • An accreditation scheme to encourage adherence to voluntary guidelines and codes of behaviour by all tourist expeditions;
  • An environmental monitoring framework capable of identifying both short-term and cumulative impacts arising from tourism activities;
  • Activity guidelines addressing environmental and safety issues which will assist in the planning and conduct of activities commonly undertaken by tourists to ensure that such activities have no more than a minor or transitory environmental impact and are conducted in a safe and responsible manner;
  • A site management system incorporating site-specific guidelines to identify and put in place management controls for sites identified as being at risk;
  • An Antarctic shipping code for consideration by the International Maritime Organisation to encourage appropriate environmental and safety standards for commercial shipping in the Antarctic Treaty area;
  • A coordinated inspection/observer scheme to audit compliance with regulatory and voluntary measures governing tourism activities;
  • Effective quarantine procedures to prevent the introduction and spread of exotic species in the Antarctic environment;
  • A database on tourism activities to assist in the management of these activities; and
  • A financial security system that requires all tourism activities to carry adequate insurance, provide a bond, or otherwise indemnify or reimburse others against the cost of support provided in the event of accidents or an emergency.

Dr Stone said that one area of concern was the potential for an oil spill or loss of life if cruise ship hulls were not ice-strengthened.

According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), the number of ship-based tourists visiting Antarctica has grown from 6,704 in 1992-93 to 13,263 in 2002-03. IAATO has estimated the number of ship-based tourists landing in Antarctica was over 20,000, last season.

While the Antarctic continent is as large as Australia, tourism is concentrated in small areas, for example on the Antarctic Peninsula close to South America.

Dr Stone said if current rates of tourism growth were to continue, current mechanisms for managing Antarctic tourism would become increasingly inadequate.

"In recent years the number of small, under-prepared private 'adventure' expeditions has also increased," Dr Stone said.

"It is not fair to simply take off and hope for the best and rely on others to come to provide assistance if things go awry. The cost involved in rescues in this hostile environment has a major impact on national scientific programs and can put at risk the lives of the people involved in search and rescue attempts.

"Venturing south should not be undertaken lightly. Self-sufficiency and careful planning, including fall-back contingencies, are essential in this, the most hostile and unpredictable environment on Earth."

The concentration of tourist activities on the Antarctic Peninsula may be some distance from the 42% of Antarctic territory claimed by Australia, but this has not stopped Australian nationals flocking to work there on cruise ships and in adventure tourism, or simply to visit as tourists.

Currently, Australian nationals and Australian-registered companies intending to conduct tourism operations in Antarctica are required to notify the Australian Antarctic Division and undertake an environmental impact assessment.

Dr Stone said that it was imperative that proper tourism measures were implemented to protect the rare beauty of Antarctica.

"A footprint left on lichen will still be visible in 10 years. We need to be proactive now, to preserve the future of this remarkable land."