The Antarctic tourism industry needs to speak up

Antarctic tour operators have a significant stake in keeping the Antarctic environment pristine, but they’ll need to exercise some political muscle if they want a say in Antarctica’s future. As the only continent without citizens, Antarctica needs the tourist industry to speak up for marine protection. 

By Ricardo Roura

Antarctica’s abundant wildlife, clean seas, and unfettered horizons are what makes the Antarctic experience unique. Unlike any other continent, Antarctica has no indigenous people. It has no citizens or long-term residents. Governance of the region is decided through international consensus. It is left up scientists and NGOs to push conservation initiatives. It is critical the Antarctic tourism industry, which is growing in size and strength, plays a role in securing this unique place for future generations. Right now this means supporting marine reserves.

Orcas swimming near the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: John Weller

Marine protection is the best tool we have, but it’s not happening fast enough

In 2009, the international body tasked with the conservation of marine life in the Southern Ocean, CCAMLR, committed to creating a network of marine protected areas (MPAs), effectively creating a “ring” of marine protection around the Antarctic continent by the self-imposed deadline of 2012. After initial progress, negotiations stalled with the Ukraine, Russia, and China blocking consensus agreement for marine protected areas in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica. Meanwhile, the threats of climate change and overfishing increased. Some commentators thought the cause was lost.

Antarctic tourists were among the millions of people around the world that signed petitions urging their governments to push harder. Finally, in October 2016, the stalemate was broken. In a historic decision, over 1.55 million square kilometres of the Ross Sea was protected in what will be the largest marine protected area in the world once it enters into force at the end of 2017.

The breakthrough sparked considerable interest among Antarctic tour operators. Some were compelled to take a stand. Dutch operator Oceanwide Expeditions issued a formal statement supporting the creation of more marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. They recognised that we have considerable work to do and very little time to do it.

The Ross Sea marine protected area is representative of just one of nine regions of the Southern Ocean, each of which has sensitive and unique areas of biodiversity that require protection. This year, there are two further proposals for marine protected areas up for negotiation – one in East in Antarctica and the other in the Weddell Sea. Until now, the tourism industry has been relatively timid about supporting Antarctic conservation initiatives. They generally seem satisfied to focus on the education of tourists and guidelines about their operations – for instance during landings ashore – but shy away from political statements. For the sake of their own survival as a business, this has to change.

What the tourism industry can do

How can tourism operators meaningfully contribute?

The path of least resistance is via public outreach and education initiatives. People that have visited Antarctica are more likely to sign petitions and take action to support positive participation by their country in international decisions. Tourism companies can link their customers to the NGOs such as the Antarctic Ocean Alliance. But tourism operators can also represent their and their customers’ concerns directly with politicians.

Made up of 24 countries and the EU, CCAMLR meets annually to decide new conservation and fishing measures in the Southern Ocean.

Politically, tour operators can be quite influential in certain countries. Many Antarctica tour operators are based in Antarctic Treaty and CCAMLR member countries. As employers and contributors to the local economy, tour operators might be surprised by the impact they can have on their national representatives at international fora discussing Antarctic and Southern Ocean  – and higher up in government –  by simply communicating their concerns.

As a united voice under the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), tour operators also have influence at the big international meetings that will ultimately decide the fate of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Many tour operators are active in promoting protection initiatives at areas they visit, but the Antarctic environment is much more than that. Antarctic tourism is largely about the marine ecosystem, coastal landscapes, and marine life. The bodies that govern Antarctica and the Southern Ocean need to know that there is substantial public interest in ensuring long-term protection of the marine environment. As well as taking initiatives of their own, tour operators should encourage IAATO to adopt a strong stance and actively participate in these meetings.

In 2016, tens of thousands of people signed postcards supporting marine protection and addressed them to CCAMLR delegates.

In an increasingly small, human-dominated world, we all have a role to play to preserve remaining wild spaces, including the ocean. The idea is to create a “virtuous circle” by which continued support from the tourism industry builds on other voices calling for conservation and for the expansion of a network of marine protected areas and marine reserves. Naturally, some tour operators will take a more active role than others. Tourism is a big industry but it is a non-extractive industry, and it has a stake in protecting the Antarctic environment for the long term.  Make no mistake though – those that shy away from speaking out are complicit in the inevitable development and potential overexploitation of Antarctica that will follow if fishing interests are allowed to tip the political balance in their favour.

Dr. Ricardo Roura  is an independent consultant specialising in the polar regions. He has extensive experience in Antarctic fieldwork and in Antarctic Treaty System fora. Ricardo has participated in twelve Antarctic expeditions as a scientist, environmental manager, and field tutor. Most famously, Ricardo spent a year at Greenpeace’s Antarctic World Park Base as part of the campaign that resulted in Antarctica’s international mining ban.