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Common approach towards wilderness protection in Antarctica urgently needed

Published: 21st May 2019 Last updated: 11th March 2021

Despite the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System to protect the region’s wilderness, growing tourism in Antarctica, besides other human activities, is posing an increasing threat to the wilderness. In order to improve protection, the Antarctic Treaty Parties should take urgent action and find a common approach, says Antje Neumann, who recently defended her PhD thesis on this topic at Tilburg University. She studied wilderness protection in three Arctic areas to learn specific lessons for the Antarctic.

The meaning of “wilderness”

The most important obstacle to wilderness protection in the Antarctic is that the Antarctic Treaty Parties do not have a common approach towards it. This applies in particular to the risks associated with the drastic increase in Antarctic tourism. The number of tourists who visit Antarctica every year has long been around 1,000, but has risen significantly since 1990. Nowadays, the number exceeds 50,000 visitors per year. In addition to the number of tourists, also the diversity of activities has been increasing. While traditional cruise-ship tourism is still the main form of travel, present tourism activities also include ski expeditions, mountain climbing, marathons, base jumping and heli-skiing.

Despite the explicit legal recognition of the region’s wilderness values under the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, the protection of these values is inadequate. This is mainly because of different opinions concerning the meaning of the concept of “wilderness” in Antarctica and a prevailing uncertainty about the concrete meaning of the legal obligation to protect associated values.

In contrast, wilderness areas in the Arctic, usually governed by a single state, are most often subject to an agreed approach by this state. This experience in the Arctic shows that a common approach towards the protection of Antarctica’s wilderness should be feasible.

According to Antje Neumann, such an approach can be based on a definition of “wilderness” that ideally contains three elements: a certain size, naturalness, and undevelopedness (absence of permanent human infrastructure and development) of the area in question. In addition, more subjective elements such as “solitude” might be considered as well.

Tourism management

Neumann’s Arctic case studies further revealed numerous effective measures to regulate and manage tourism with due regard to wilderness protection. Examples are a visitor quota system, the designation of special recreational zones, access restrictions for sensitive areas, and regulations on the diversity of tourism activities ranging from complete prohibitions to the restriction of certain activities in selected areas or on specific routes.

Understanding these possibilities is important, but above all, the Parties to the Antarctic Treaty should recognize the urgency of wilderness protection and demonstrate their political will to end the existing implementation vacuum with regard to the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty.

Note to editors

Dr. Antje Neumann defended her PhD thesis on May 8, 2019, at Tilburg University. Title: Wilderness protection in Polar Regions – Arctic lessons learnt for the regulation and management of tourism in the Antarctic. The study was sponsored by NWO. Antje Neumann is available for questions at or via press officer Corine Schouten, tel. + 31 13  466 4000 /