As the characters and circumstances highlight in My Last Continent, tourism in Antarctica is a tricky thing. On one hand, the Antarctic peninsula — where most travelers visit — is a fragile place, and the fewer humans who set foot on this region, the better. On the other hand, for many who visit Antarctica, it’s a life-changing experience that causes them to rethink everything, especially their commitment to the planet — this was its effect on me — I came home, wrote a story and eventually a novel, and have committed to major life changes in order to do my own part in protecting the planet and its animals.
For the narrator of My Last Continent, Deb Gardner, doing her research means supporting an industry that causes her great worry; she needs the tourist expedition boats to ferry her to the islands where she studies penguins. She encounters travelers who learn to appreciate the continent and who want to help protect it; she also encounters those who care little for its landscape or creatures and who simply want to check it off their bucket lists before it disappears.
A recent study from North Carolina State University (“Tourists’ motivations, learning and trip satisfaction facilitate pro-environmental outcomes of the Antarctic tourist experience,” published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism) reveals that, in fact, a significant reason that many people travel to Antarctica is to socialize or celebrate with an exotic backdrop — not due to an interest in the landscape or its wildlife. Many were there for the same reason people visit the Arctic or the Great Barrier Reef — a chance to see one of the world’s wonders before it disappears.
This is discouraging, to say the least. If travelers don’t care about the wildlife, how can we inspire them to protect the penguins, the whales, the seals? If they only want to see it before it melts rather than keep it from melting, how can they be convinced that exactly this type of climate change will soon be in their own backyards?
And yet there is some hope: Researchers in this study looked at tourist groups (divided by motivation, i.e., whether they traveled to Antarctica for education, social bonding, adventure, or “to take a trip of a lifetime”), and what they learned, as well as what they felt they learned. Travelers in the education and “trip of a lifetime” group had a high perception of learning, which bodes well for teaching future visitors about conservation and the environment.
The study’s lead author, Daniela Cajiao, said, “If you feel you got something from the learning experience, then it will more likely change you and what you do after the trip. That has important implications for educators, communicators and tour operators.”
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO)’s most recent visitor figures are for the 2019-2020 season (the same season researched in the study mentioned above); IAATO reports that 74,401 visitors traveled to Antarctica between October 2019 and April 2020 — this is double the number of five years earlier, and nearly four times the number of visitors who went to Antarctica back when I did, in 2004. Post-pandemic, the numbers are likely to climb again. And while in the 2019-2020 season, 18,506 travelers did not set foot on the continent, an increasing number of visitors are going deep into the continent, as air travel becomes increasingly available and as tour companies offer such opportunities as overnighting on the ice. All of this has a serious impact on the continent, its resources, and its wildlife.
Meanwhile, the ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, the ice shelves continue to collapse, and the temperatures continue to soar — this past winter, temperatures reached levels 104 degrees higher than normal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that melting ice sheets from Antarctica — as well as other places — will force millions from their homes as global sea level rises.
With all this in mind, it’s important to consider why we travel, especially in this era of massive climate chaos. It’s not enough to visit a place before it disappears; we need to consider how we can help conserve these precious landscapes. Those visiting Antarctica need to realize it’s not a theme park but a wild, incredibly dynamic place that needs our protection if we want to continue to share our planet with endangered creatures like penguins and whales. We should absolutely travel to be with friends and family, to celebrate milestones — but we should also travel to educate ourselves, and to return home inspired to do a bit better for our planet.