Annual Antarctic Treaty meet begins in Kochi: Tourism framework to tackle growing threats in talks for first time

46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting aims to foster international collaboration on scientific research and sustainable resource management in the icy continent
India is facilitating the first-ever working group discussions on Antarctic tourism. Photo: @moesgoi / X (formerly Twitter)
India is facilitating the first-ever working group discussions on Antarctic tourism. Photo: @moesgoi / X (formerly Twitter)

For the first time, a special working group has been formed to create a tourism framework for Antarctica in response to concerns about its rapid growth.

The special working group is part of the 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), which is being held in Kochi from May 20-30, 2024. It is hosted by the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, an autonomous research institute under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The event will be attended by over 350 delegates from more than 60 countries. 

The ACTM aims to foster international collaboration on scientific research and sustainable resource management in the icy continent, along with discussing the principles and objectives of the Antarctic Treaty, which went into effect in 1961. The Treaty currently has 56 parties, including India.

“The increase [in tourism activity] is due to the diversification of tourism activities, including high-risk adventure tourism. Issues related to regulatory measures, liability in case of accidents, search and rescue are yet to be properly addressed,” Shailesh Nayak, director of Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advanced Studies, said at the opening plenary. 

The framework is expected to manage the impact of the rising numbers of people visiting Antarctica, including enforceable rules and regulations. 

“Formal regulation of tourism has been delayed for too long. However, the upcoming ATCM offers a crucial opportunity to finally adopt enforceable regulations and prevent impacts on Antarctica’s biodiversity,” Claire Christian from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) said in a statement. The coalition is a global collaboration of conservation organisations working to protect the Antarctic and Southern Ocean’s unique and vulnerable ecosystems.

The decision to form a special working group to develop a tourism framework is in response to a proposal presented by France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Germany, India, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom at the 45th ACTM in April 2023.

The proposal advocated for an intensive, dedicated process to discuss the development of a comprehensive and consistent framework for managing tourism and other non-governmental activities in Antarctica.

“The substantial growth of tourism (for example, in the numbers of tourists, ships and visited sites), the diversification of activities and the increasing likelihood that increasing pressures from tourism in conjunction with climate change, scientific activities, [and the like], will significantly impact the Antarctic environment, clearly show that the ATCM needs to step up its efforts to proactively regulate tourism,” the proposal read.

Increasing numbers of tourists and research stations in the region could lead to more microplastics and “gray water” — the water used for bathing, laundry and the like — discharged into Antarctica’s waters. This is currently unregulated, according to ASOC. Other concerns include black carbon carried from cruise ship funnels and the introduction of microbes, seeds and other invasive species by tourists.

A 2024 study estimated that visitors to Antarctica, mostly by ship, have risen from about 8,000 a year in 1993-1994 to 105,000 in 2022-2023. 

Aside from the special working group, the 46th ACTM will include discussions in two other working groups. The “Policy, Legal and Institutional” group will oversee the operation of the Antarctic Treaty System, biological prospecting in Antarctica and a multi-year strategic work plan.

Bioprospecting has emerged as a challenge across the continent. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), an interdisciplinary body of the International Science Council, has seen microorganism collections in Antarctica for pharmaceutical use.

It noted that interest in bioprospecting in Antarctica is rapidly growing. According to SCAR’s biology working group, there appears to be no mechanism in place under the Antarctic Treaty to regulate such commercial activity.

The second group, “Science, Operations, Tourism”, will discuss science issues, future science challenges, scientific cooperation and facilitation, implications of climate change for management of the Antarctic Treaty area, along with tourism and non-governmental activities in the area, including competent authorities issues.

The ACTM meeting will conclude on May 30, during which the final report and legal text will be adopted after countries reach a consensus.

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