For the discerning, environmentally aware traveler, a trip to Antarctica or the Arctic can seem like a catch-22. Where better to see the immediate effects of climate change and reignite a sense of responsibility to our planet? The educational opportunities abound, with lectures given by glaciologists who can provide hard evidence of polar ice melt or by ornithologists who have witnessed firsthand the decreasing populations of adélie penguins as the temperatures rise each year.
On the other hand, one must consider the direct impacts these voyages have on the environment. One step into the stunning, pristine world of white and it's hard not to wonder: Should I really be here? Think about the amount of fuel consumed by the (multiple) airplanes taken to the point of embarkation and then again by the large ship you're traveling on. A fuel or oil spill in this region would be catastrophic to many species. Picture the ignorant travelers traipsing through a penguin's nesting grounds because they did not listen to their expedition leader, distressing the birds and potentially causing them to abandon their nests.
Certainly, no visitor to Antarctica wants to contribute to its destruction by any means. It is hard to avoid the feeling that you are invading an untouched wilderness that you would prefer to stay that way - untouched.
While the above are all very real risks, the silver lining (and what makes polar tourism important) is the fact that visitors to these regions return as polar ambassadors with a newfound responsibility to protect these pristine parts of the world and be more conscious of their carbon footprint upon returning home. The more voices there are speaking to these topics, the better. Tourism is the number one driving force for conservation.
What can you do as a traveler to offset the impact tourism has on the environment and/or communities?
Don’t support the whaling industry: The massive whaling industry in countries like Iceland, Norway, and Greenland is supported by the growing tourism industry, as it is a novelty for tourists to sample the meat. This is a direct threat to already dwindling species. What can you do? Do not support this practice by not eating whale meat when you visit these places.
Make choices that benefit the local communities (Arctic): Wherever possible, take tours with local guides. Purchase handicrafts made by locals. This contributes to the local economy. The tourism industry is the main source of income for many communities.
Visit national parks: This typically requires a fee, which goes toward the maintenance of said park.
Follow guidelines and Leave No Trace: Guides will always give explicit instructions. “Do not step on the moss.” “Stay on the trail.” “Do not approach the molting penguins.” This may be for your safety, but it is also to protect wildlife and vegetation (moss, lichen), which can take years and years to regenerate.