Antarctic tourism: Can visitors protect the frozen continent?

Every year over 40,000 tourists visit the Antarctic – the region has seen a boom in tourism over the past two decades. Many tour operators claim their trips to Antarctica employ a 'zero-impact policy'.

This article is based on research by Mar Vila & Gerard Costa

Yet efforts to protect this fragile region and the harm caused by human activity highlight the need for key players to show greater awareness of the issues and see things from broader perspectives.

Are tourists jeopardising the Antarctic's future or could they actually become one of the keys to protecting this wild continent?

The answer is not black and white. Esade researchers Mar Vila and Gerard Costa have found evidence that proves how a trip to the Antarctica alters tourists' opinions, although such changes in perspective do not always favour ecological practices.

Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers collected empirical evidence from in-depth interviews with tourists, observers and tour operators in the Antarctic before and after their visit to this virgin territory. The goal was to gain greater insight into their perceptions on the fragility of this region and analyse whether tourists were more sensitive upon their return.

Visiting the Antarctic raises people's environmental sensitivity

Environmental awareness and ambassadors

The findings reveal that visiting the Antarctic raises people's environmental sensitivity. "Our data confirms that tourists' environmental awareness of the Antarctic was higher after their holiday," says Vila. "This was especially true when tourists were asked about the fragility of nature in this region. They agreed that the balance of nature was very delicate and that it was being threatened by human activities."

Antarctic
Photo: Cassie Matias/Unsplash

The survey results also show that tour operators in Antarctica seem to fail to make the link between ecosystem health and corporate performance. "Tour operators have poor awareness of the future risks environmental degradation can have on their services. This degradation, however, is highly relevant to business because tour operators and the services they provide also depend on these ecosystems," says Vila.

"Enlightening tourists during their visit about the continent's structure and functioning could boost their knowledge and help turn them into advocates for protecting the planet's fridge," says Vila. This positive effect is known as 'ambassadorship' and was coined by the Swedish-American entrepreneur and explorer Lars-Eric Linbald, who pioneered tourist expeditions to Antarctica.

"If the main aim of tourists is to enjoy a 'last chance' to visit Antarctica as one of the last wildernesses on Earth, we advocate a more focused educational commitment by Antarctic tour companies to developing future 'ambassadors'."

Enlightening tourists about the continent's structure and functioning could help turn them into advocates

Self-regulation

Although the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators calls for 'self-regulation' to control Antarctica as a tourist destination, critical voices stress the need for better and more integrated tourism management. "Issues raised in our interviews – such as companies escaping controls – seem to threaten the Industry's commitment to protect the Antarctic region."

"We suggest that an overarching regulatory structure could help to prevent Antarctica turning into a mass tourist destination, as might a management approach that sticks to responsible tourism principles and implements sustainable practices."

The report calls for new agreements for the protection of Antarctica, better planning, use of management tools, and enhanced education of visitors as key aspects that could further enhance preservation.

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