Will new laws stem the number of tourisits visiting the polar regions? Mark Rowe reports

Twenty years ago, the high latitudes of the earth were still essentially the preserve of grizzled explorers, as notable for their beards and frostbitten digits as for the epic treks they undertook.

Today, that picture has changed dramatically. Tourism to Antarctica, despite a short-term dip linked to the global recession, has never been so popular – 37,800 people visited in the past southern hemisphere summer. And while the melting of the Arctic ice is breathtaking in its speed, and horrifying scientists, it has let cruise ships head further north than ever before.

But tourism to both extremes of the earth looks set to become a great deal more tightly regulated. This year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, by 45 nations, which committed leading powers to working in co-operation in Antarctica (defined as the area south of 60 degrees latitude) and declaring the region “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”.

Visitors to the White Continent may be forgiven at times for wondering how much value is still placed on those words. The last Antarctic summer saw the biggest ship ever visit Antarctica, the Star Princess. Laden with 3,500 passengers and crew, it glided through the icy waters past humpback whales and colonies of Gentoo penguins. But at a meeting this December in New Zealand of the treaty nations, several regulations are expected to be tightened for the southern high latitudes, with knock-on effects for the Arctic.

The meeting may also finally prohibit in international law the construction of hotels on Antarctica. “Right now, the only thing that is stopping people building hotels is peer pressure and government pressure,” says Dr James Barnes, executive director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Asoc). “That’s not good enough. We need a clear legally binding decision on tourism infrastructure to stop them being built. What kind of future do we want for Antarctica – do we want it to be more accessible or left as pristine as possible? If you want the latter, then we have to take steps.”

The costs of cruises may also increase when a ban on the use of heavy fuel oils by vessels is introduced, probably in 2011. Heavy fuel oil is considered more environmentally hazardous than other marine fuel oils because it is slow to break down, particularly in cold polar waters. Cleaner fuel, usually marine diesel, is around two and a half times as expensive, and the Falkland Islands government has expressed fears that prices for tours that take in its waters may become too expensive to be commercially viable.

Both poles are now presenting the tourism industry, conservationists, and scientists with new challenges. The spectacular calving of ice shelves in Antarctica and the disintegration of the polar ice cap in the Arctic – scientists at the British Antarctic Survey say there is a good chance the North Pole will be free of summer ice in little more than a decade – has created opportunities and hazards for tourism.

Warming of the poles will have some advantages for tourism, according to Steve Wellmeier, executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, pointing to greater access to the North-West and North-East passages, and to potentially greater access to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica as ice melts. “But for Antarctica, there are probably some negatives,” he said. “Warming means a faster break-up of winter sea ice, which affects penguin populations and breeding success. Some colonies might eventually become less attractive for tourist visits because of reduced populations, encouraging tour operators to seek either new areas or to concentrate on those that continue to have stable or growing populations.

“There will always be plenty of icebergs to entertain tourists, but with less sea ice it means that ships will encounter more ice early in summer but not later, and with less or no sea ice, there would be fewer or no seals or penguins to haul out on them for tourists to photograph.”

But greater numbers of meandering icebergs and more cruise liners – many, like the Star Princess, carrying thousands of passengers – has led to concerns about the risk to human life and to the pristine environments in which they are now able to move. Two tourist ships have already come to grief in Antarctica: in January 2007, the Nordkapp\[Keith Howitt\], in what was concluded by safety inspectors to be “human error” and in November the same year, the Explorer sank after hitting ice, though all 154 passengers were evacuated to a passing cruise ship.

“As traffic increases in both polar areas, we are seeing increasing incidents of ship groundings and collisions,” says Dr Pat Lewis, of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s International Arctic Programme. “These are remote sites, and some ships would not be able to cope with saving human life, let alone the impact on the environment.”

The US arm of Friends of the Earth is leading efforts to legally enforce a requirement for all Arctic tourism boats to be strengthened and carry ice-masters, specialist crew members trained in navigating a path through icy waters. Such moves should be mandatory, according to Asoc.

The hazards are not only confined to icebergs. “Vulnerable vegetation can be trampled and disturbance of nesting seabirds can make their chicks and eggs vulnerable to opportunistic predators,” says Dr Lewis. “As sea-ice in the Arctic continues to disappear, species such as walrus are increasingly dependent upon using land sites rather than ice to haul out and rest. In these situations, animals are much more prone to disturbance by people, and incautious tourists may trigger stampedes of walrus that can cause significant injury.”

However, environmental campaigners, acknowledging the beauty of the poles, are keen to stress that a balance must be struck. “There are certainly benefits,” concludes Dr Lewis, “not least of all the fact that this beautiful environment inspires many visitors to return home with an increased empathy and understanding of the environment and a commitment to make an increased effort to support action to reduce climate change.”