14th December is an important date for many reasons. According to Wikipedia, Constantinople was struck by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in 557, while closer to home, the Seat of Government Surrender Act 1909 (NSW) transferred the Australian Capital Territory from New South Wales to the Commonwealth. However, for polar observers, 14th December 1911 marks the day that Roald Amundsen and his team became the first people to reach the geographic South Pole.
Back in those days, travelling to Antarctica was a major feat of exploration. Amundsen’s small team of explorers and huskies traversed many hundreds of miles over undulating terrain, mountains and glaciers, before tackling the Antarctic Ice Cap, the largest piece of ice in the world. It was hard-going and involved years of endeavour, which even included constructing a wooden home on the edge of the continent complete with a network of underground tunnels.
Today, the journey is rather easier. Ships and planes bring tens of thousands of visitors to the southern continent annually, and the numbers are growing. The challenge is how to manage this vast number of visitors whilst also keeping the frozen continent as unspoiled as possible. After all, a major drawcard of the Antarctic is its pristine state of nature. In fact, it is so untouched that the fauna of Antarctica have not learnt to fear humans, with wonderful results for photo buffs!
The Antarctic Treaty System, known as the ATS to polar law scholars, provides a complex framework of rules to govern the bottom of our planet. Amongst other things, it freezes territorial claims while not removing them entirely (a fancy piece of diplomatic footwork), prevents military activity, and emphasises the importance of science and environmental protection. It is this last measure that has the greatest impact on tourism. Article 8 and Annex I of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, or Madrid Protocol, jointly require comprehensive environmental assessments to be completed if an activity is to have more than a “minor or transitory impact.” These assessments are shared among all ATS parties per Article 6 (Annex I) and decisions to allow an activity to proceed must be based on the assessment.
The result is that most tourism activities are designed to make as little an impact as possible. Even a less than minor or transitory impact requires the completion of a 14-page application for the Australian Antarctic Division, the agency which oversees Australia’s involvement in Antarctica. An activity with more than a minor or transitory impact undergoes a public consultation process and can take up to 2 years to receive approval. Not ideal if you want to take advantage of a sudden spike in tourist interest!
However, the crux of the matter is the preservation of Antarctica for future generations. The frozen continent is the last place on Earth that has not been grossly affected by humanity. This is a major reason, if not the major reason, that tourists come to visit. It is vital that the Antarctic tourism industry continue to reduce their environmental footprint while catering for ever-increasing tourist numbers. How to do this exactly is very much a practical rather legal issue. It is also an issue primarily for non-state actors who operate daily in this industry. The peak body of the private sector, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, is hard at work on this issue and continuously releases new guidelines based on common best practice. International law has set down the framework for the practical, non-state ingenuity that will surely follow.
As for the excited visitor ready for an adventure of a lifetime, you can be sure that Antarctica and its inhabitants will cast a spell over you, just as it did to Amundsen and his team over a century ago.
Wygene Chong is an Ordinary Committee Member of the UWA International Law Club and second year Juris Doctor student who looks for every opportunity to use penguin photos in his work.
P.S. If you would like to read Amundsen’s immersive personal account of the journey to the Pole, see Roald Amundsen, The South Pole: an account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in the “Fram,” 1910-1912 (John Murray, London, 1912). The (very old) book is available in the UWA Reid Library, as well as online.