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Antarctica is one of the largest and most fragile environments on earth. It is rare and unique, and few people get the opportunity to visit such an extraordinary place. Antarctica’s unique environment and climate sets it apart from other tourist destinations. However, the hostile wilderness creates many challenges for ecotourism. There is a concern regarding the high concentration of tourists and their environmental impact at the few landing sites available. The real debate is whether tourism can benefit, or threaten the conservation of Antarctica.
Ecotourism, in its early historical origins has been closely linked to nature – oriented tourism. For example, Laarman and Durst, in reference to ecotourism, defined it as a nature tourism where a traveler is interested and drawn to a destination because of its features and natural history. The visit combines education, recreation, and often adventure’ (Laarman and Durst 1987:5). Defining ecotourism is not easily done, difficulties defining it are mainly due to the multidimensional nature of the definitions, and the fact that each dimension involved represents a continuum of possibilities (Blamey 1997).
The Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas, which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people’ (Western 1993:8). Ceballos-Lascurain (1987: 14) defines ecotourism as ‘traveling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas’. The tourism industry of Antarctica is often overlooked as a factor of environmental degradation.
It is important that more attention is drawn to assessing the current state of this large continent. Beck (1994) states that, tourists, scientists, and other visitors to Antarctica have tremendous environmental impacts. Tourist shipping can pose an environmental risk, and there is good reason for concern. There have been several marine accidents in recent years. There was the case of an Argentinean supply vessel Bahia Paraiso, which ran a ground on January 28, 1989, spilling 600 metric tones of fuel into Antarctica’s pristine waters (Culver 1991). Other environmental impacts include engine emissions that contribute to air pollution.
The noise generated from outboard motors on inflatable zodiacs, turbulence created from tourist ships and the “grey water” sewage they emit also creates harmful effects. More responsibility is being demanded out of eco tourists visiting Antarctica. For example Salen Lindblad’s 164-passenger ship the Frontier Spirit has been reinforced, and also contains a sewage treatment plant, refrigerated waste storage area, and a special storage area for non-biodegradable waste (Cebellos-Lascurain 1996). Another main concern is in the peninsula region of Antarctica where there are several highly concentrated, high profile sites.
The concentration of tourism activities leads to the potential for over visitation in these areas. A present study of Magellanic penguins demonstrates that human impact puts a great amount of stress on the species. Simple human presence can be physiologically stressful for breeding at nest sites (Fowler 1999). The Antarctic environment is very fragile and not used to human activities. However the study also found that birds exposed to high levels of tourists are not effected over time and concludes that as a result tourism should be concentrated to certain areas while others are kept off limits to human presence.
People have been going to Antarctica for over 100 years. Prior to 1950, nearly all trips to Antarctica were either exploratory or scientific expeditions (Cessford 1997). As a result of human activity in the area there has been a connection with industrial, national and scientific programs. Human activity has also caused the development of alien microbes, fungi, plants, and animals. These “alien” species that are mostly European in origin exist on most of the sub – Antarctic islands and some even occur on the continent itself. These species in turn can have both a direct and indirect impact on the Antarctic ecosystem (Fenot 2004).
It has only been recently that biologists have conducted any research into diseases of Antarctic wildlife to note the effects of human activity. These studies look at marine mammals and penguins for bacteria flora and pathogens (disease causing organisms). Blood tests for antibodies of a variety of species have also been taken to check for viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic disease. A study conducted in the summer season of 2000/2001, Dr. Todhunter and Dr. Terris took swab collections of specimens from passengers’ boots aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, which led to tentative findings of a wide range of potential pathogens.
In another study 233 fecal samples from 8 bird species were taken from 6 different penguin colonies, which are regularly visited by tourists. The samples were investigated for pathogens of potential human origin. No human related bacteria were found, which suggests that the tourism industry in the Antarctic region has achieved its goal of not introducing any pathogens so far. While the tourist season only ranges from October to April, currently tourism in Antarctica involves over 30 agencies, and 40,000 tourists per annum (Lambert 2005). Antarctica is the ultimate destination for anyone interested in natural history, but it also challenges the same people that visit to think about our responsibilities to all life on earth” (Lambert 2005). Tourists to Antarctica are most likely to fall in to the category of eco tourist, as there are no restaurants, theaters or art galleries, and the experience is about learning about and viewing one of the earth’s last untouched continents. Boo (1990) states that for conservation management to succeed, tourism must be a tool to educate thus creating real benefits for a geological location.
Although tourism and human contact on Antarctica is showing some negative impacts, it has also encouraged conservation efforts in the region. Another step towards the recognition of potential environmental impact is the creation of the IATTO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators). In 1991 seven tour operators active in Antarctica formed IATTO. It was created to act as a single organization. The goal of IATTO is to promote and practice safe environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. Currently there are 80 member organizations representing 14 countries. IATTO 2008) This environmental protocol designates Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science and seeks to ensure human activities, such as tourism, have no adverse effects on the Antarctic environment, or on its scientific and aesthetic values. With a recent increase in the number of members in the IAATO it shows that companies are becoming more aware of the environmentally sensitive concerns related to Antarctica and the importance of such an organization. The increase in membership does not necessarily mean that there has been a drastic increase in the number of tourists visiting Antarctica.
All current Antarctica tour operators file yearly environmental impact assessments to their national authorities. There are few places on earth that have never been to war, where the environment is fully protected and scientific research has priority over anything else. (IAATO 2008) The Antarctic treaty can be accredited with the successful protection of Antarctica. Formed on June 23, 1961 the treaty covers the area south of 60 degrees latitude and consists of 46 countries. Its objectives are simple and unique, demilitarize Antarctica and make it a zone free of nuclear tests, and disposal of radioactive waste.
As well as be used for peaceful purposes only (IAATO 2008). To promote international cooperation in the Antarctic and set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty. The treaty parties meet each year and have adopted over 300 recommendations and negotiated separate international agreements, of which 3 are still in use. These include:
These agreements and the original treaty provide the rules to govern all activities in relation to Antarctica. Collectively known as the Antarctica Treaty System (ATS). In conclusion it is apparent that Antarctica is a very fragile environment, and any kind of human involvement can pose great risks if the correct precautions are not taken. It is clear to me that eco tourism can benefit the great continent of Antarctica, those visiting become ambassadors as they learn about the importance of preservation. Boo (1990) explains that tourists become emotionally attached to an area and will contribute funds to preserve it.
It is important for organizations like the IAATO to continue their promotion of safe and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic. Continued research is necessary to make sure that tourists as well as scientists leave as little of a human footprint as possible. Antarctica is a beautiful place on earth, and I believe that when people are educated about their impact on such a vulnerable area and regulations are put in place to protect the area that everyone should be able to experience the Antarctic continent in all of its magnificence.
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