A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website about whether tourists should be blocked from visiting Antarctica…

There has been a rush of “see it before it’s gone” tourism in recent years. The advent of “climate tourism“, and its close relative “extinction tourism“, has been reflected in (and encouraged by, no doubt) travel journalism.

In March, the Miami Herald ran a travel feature with the headline: Global warming: 10 destinations to see before it’s too late. Last year, the Observer ran a feature in its travel section headlined 10 wonders of the vanishing world which celebrated threatened destinations such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the Maldives – and then told you how to get to them (which attracted an angry reaction from some readers).

It is a worrying, if understandable, trend. I, too, would love to be able to see some of these places with my own eyes. Who wouldn’t? On the top of my list would be Antarctica. I grew up, like so many others, devouring the exploits of Amundsen, Shackleton, and Scott and it would surely be an extraordinary personal experience to be able to go there.

To learn that these destinations may, if not quite “vanish” (I think there’s a few years of Antarctica left yet), then at least be degraded or altered by climate change in coming decades, is all the more a spur to book the journey for some.

I can well understand the human desire driving this type of tourism – just as I can understand why we want to climb to the top of mountains or reach out into space. But, if it means speeding a destination’s decline by us being there as tourists, then we shouldn’t be given free rein to do so.

Antarctica is one place where I believe that this applies more than anywhere else. In fact, I believe it is the one place in the world where a “no tourism” rule should now be implemented.

It is far too environmentally fragile a place for the heavy feet of tourists to tread. (It is also unique in not having an indigenous population to argue it needs the tourism dollars.) That’s not just my view – that’s the view of many scientists based there, including ones from the British Antarctic Survey. The UN environment programme also expressed concern about tourism’s impact in Antarctica in its 2007 report called Global Outlook for Ice and Snow:

“The projected retreat of sea ice is likely to lead to an expansion of tourism activities, as more sites will become accessible by sea and the season will lengthen. This, in turn, is likely to increase the risk tourism presents to the marine environment, as well as to terrestrial ecosystems, as over 80% of the tourists land during their journeys. This will also present new challenges in maintaining the unique characteristics Antarctica presents for scientific monitoring and research on processes of global and regional importance … In order to address these challenges, a comprehensive regime on tourism should be developed, complementary to the Madrid protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, which provides a regulatory framework for human activities in Antarctica.”

The Antarctic Treaty came into force on 23 June 1961 (and, a little worryingly, comes up for “renewal” on its 50th birthday in three years time) with the somewhat vague promise of ensuring the ice continent became a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. For decades, it has been host to just a few scientists (although the Americans have pushed the boundaries way too far with their grossly oversized settlement at McMurdo Station and at the South Pole, with its new all-weather, coast-to-pole road).

But in recent years, it has blossomed as a destination for cruise ships, buoyed by the relentless demand for “adventure tourism”. During the 2007-2008 season, almost 35,000 tourists were estimated to have stepped ashore from their cruise ships in Antarctica, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (a coalition of tour operators established in 1991 that follow “best practice self-regulation” when it comes to minimising their environmental impact).

By comparison, just 6,704 tourists went ashore in 1990. This probably isn’t the time to discuss the inadequacies of the Antarctic treaty, especially given the looming fight over seabed mining rights, but one positive thing that could come of the 2011 renewal discussions would, at the very least, be the introduction of exceptionally strict rules about how tourists are to interact with Antarctica, if they are allowed to at all.

At present, tourism isn’t even mentioned in the treaty’s wording. Earlier this year, Simon Jenkins wrote, with a sense of boyish glee, about how he is now the proud keeper of a walnut-sized pebble that he picked up when visiting Antarctica. He went on to argue that the continent shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of scientists. I strongly disagree: I favour the precautionary principle in that we prove we can tread carefully enough as tourists elsewhere first – something we most certainly have not achieved yet – before we bespoil this pristine place.

Surely, we can show that as a species we don’t always have to “have” something just because we know it’s there, and as a result end up mishandling it. Surely, we can move away from the centuries-old attitude that mankind has dominion over nature. (And, no, I don’t agree with the view, so often argued, that you have to see these things with your own eyes to truly understand why they need protecting; I’ve never seen the Brazilian rainforest, but I understand why it shouldn’t be chopped down.)

I fear, though, that this is a forlorn hope: this week, Gap Adventures, the company that saw its cruise ship, the MS Explorer, sink off Antarctica last November after striking an unidentified object, announced that it had secured a bigger ship to recommence expeditions from January 2009. The momentum of tourism is, at times, mightier than that of a glacier.