Last year Antarctica welcomed more than 100,000 tourists from around the world for the first time – and is expected to welcome even more in 2024.
According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), it received 32,730 cruise visitors, 71,346 disembarked visitors and 821 overseas visitors, for a total of 104,897 visitors.
Compared to 2019, 2023 saw a 77% increase in cruise-only visitors, a 29% increase in landed visitors, a 12% increase in international visitors and a 41% increase in total visits.
IAATO is responsible for developing policies and regulations that ensure environmentally responsible tourism that helps protect Antarctica and its unique ecosystem.
Since 2009, concerns about the environmental impact of tourism have been raised a recurring theme of the continent's annual environmental committee.
At a meeting in 2023, representatives of cruise lines and tour operators, as well as committee leaders, proposed introducing 17 new rules of conduct for visitors and improving geofences in the Gerlache Strait and South Shetland Islands to help protect whale-rich waters.
These geofences are restricted areas with invisible boundaries that are established at certain times of the year to prevent people, ships and other vehicles from passing through certain areas where wildlife may be disturbed.
According to thenationalnews.com, IAATO considers it unlikely that increased tourist visits to Antarctica will have a negative impact on the continent's natural environment due to its strict protocols and protection rules will ensure reasonable practice. All tourism operations are subject to environmental impact assessments, but the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a conservation NGO, fears measures taken by tour operators and cruise lines may not be enough.
“In the absence of a comprehensive tourism and tourism management plan, adding new trips, land-based activities and unusual excursions to Antarctica is a risky trend, says Claire Christian, executive director of the NGO.
Any expansion is ideal. areas visited by tourists, or diversification of activities in which tourists participate, should only occur within the framework of a management plan that takes full account of whether these activities are consistent with the environmental protection objectives of the Environmental Protocol. However, there is no such plan at this time.”
As demand for unusual polar excursions grows, so does the risk to the destination.
The National News notes that despite extensive regulations, human factors are often difficult to control, making enforcement challenging.
As a proactive measure, IAATO's recently released measures cover everything from wildlife integrity to responsible waste disposal and awareness of protected areas.
Although IAATO membership for tour operators is not mandatory and as the number of tourists visiting IAATO increases, it is unclear how these non-IAATO member organizations will be regulated .