Tourism on Antarctica: Beware, danger!

Written by  Jos Cortenraad Friday, 01 January 2010 00:00

Machiel Lamers: “Antarctica is so beautiful but so vulnerable.”

Last year more than 40,000 tourists offered up a small fortune to experience the silence and desolation that is the South Pole. Tour operators expect this figure to double in the coming years. According to Machiel Lamers, this represents a serious threat to the environment, to safety and to scientists. He obtained his PhD in November from the International Centre for Integrated assessment & Sustainable development (ICIS) for his research entitled ‘The future of tourism in Antarctica’.

Lamers understands very well the fascination for Antarctica, the only uninhabited continent on the planet. “It’s the ultimate wilderness. The landscape is breathtaking, the scenery extraordinary. For me it is an almost spiritual experience. It’s so overwhelming – nowhere on earth is as pristine. We really need to ask ourselves whether tourism should be allowed to further develop here.”

The researcher and UM alum, born in Zevenaar, personally believes it shouldn’t. First and foremost from an environmental standpoint: “We’ve calculated that each tourist emits around 14 tonnes of CO2 on a 10-day trip to the South Pole. The tour operators sell these as eco-trips. A flight to South America and a boat trip past the most interesting sights require a huge amount of energy. The average European produces 12 tonnes of CO2 per year, including holidays and cars. An average African produces only 2 tonnes. At the poles, the consequences of global warming are very evident. The icecaps are melting away. Therefore, a visit to the South Pole is very harmful to the environment.”


You can’t get much more contradictory than this, according to Lamers. The tourist admires a unique strip of unspoiled nature while simultaneously helping to destroy it. To simply prohibit tourism is easier said than done. Antarctica, almost one and a half times the size of the European continent, is the only place on earth that is not governed by a sovereign state. Historical and future claims have been laid, because the area is strategically appealing and the icecaps almost certainly conceal large oil reserves. For now there is a status quo, safeguarded by an Antarctic treaty which states that no single nation can claim power. “Thirty countries are conducting scientific research there, and all are members of the Antarctic Treaty”, Lamers says. “Scientists use their stations as the basis for their research. That’s no problem – Antarctica is very important for scientific studies. No-one denies that.”

As the flow of visitors increases, scientists and environmental organisations are predicting problems. “As in all places where tourism is developing, infrastructure and accommodation are being built. Attractions, shops, maybe even runways that larger aircraft can use. The pressure is getting stronger and stronger. Some research stations are already being used for lodgings and as the starting point for excursions such as penguin-watching. This is allowed at the moment, but it shouldn’t be. There are no police officers on the South Pole. Moreover, if the researchers constantly have to deal with tourists, little time is left over for science. The priority of scientific research should be safeguarded. In my dissertation I conclude that the time is ripe for more regulations and enforcement.”


“Not only for ecological reasons”, Jan Stel adds. He was Lamers’s supervisor, and to an important extent developed Antarctica research in the Netherlands. It was also Stel who obtained the NWO (Netherlands organisation for scientific research) grant to finance this research in Antarctica. In February 2009 he served as a guide to Crown Prince Willem Alexander and Princess Máxima during their visit to the area. He was able to bring the ecological changes to the attention of the royal couple and campaign for more awareness. “The safety of the visitors is at stake”, Stel says. “The tour operators are still making arrangements with each other to avoid passenger ships colliding. But this is getting increasingly difficult. The season lasts only five months. The more ships there are the more risks. The weather is unpredictable, the circumstances dire. A human catastrophe could happen at any moment. A ship sank last year and the passengers were saved just in time. There are no hospitals, no lifeboats. How can you handle this legally? Who is responsible? Machiel tackled this issue brilliantly in his dissertation.”


Coordinating 30 countries is not easy. There are conflicting interests, as Lamers discovered during his four years of research. Some countries see an opportunity to profit from tourism by, among other things, financing scientific research. Others advocate a complete ban on the development of tourism. “The solution probably lies somewhere in between”, says Lamers. “My research can be used in the further discussions. I hope it convinces the parties of the urgency of making solid agreements for better cooperation. Antarctica is so beautiful but so vulnerable. That kind of extreme nature deserves protection. I do know that Foreign Affairs has sent my dissertation to all the stakeholders and it will be distributed during a special conference on tourism around the South Pole. Sustainability is clearly on the agenda. And that’s already a reward in itself.”

Machiel Lamers (1978) studied Arts and Social Sciences in Maastricht with a specialisation in tourism. He interned at ICIS, a research institute affiliated with Maastricht University, in the field of sustainability. After following a master’s programme in Belgian Leuven, he was approached in 2005 by ICIS to undertake his doctoral degree researching tourism in Antarctica. More information:

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