Antarctica's status as a unparalleled place of international scientific collaboration was entrenched in the Antarctic Treaty 1959, and its designation as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” formally referenced in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (PEPAT) 1991 (PEPAT 1991, Article 2). The continent's importance for maintenance of the global ecosphere has more recently been confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Anisimov et al., 2007). However, the expanded scale and scope of commercial tourism in Antarctica over the last quarter century raises issues about whether the laissez-faire approach to tourism management that has been taken under the auspices of Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) governance is sufficient to protect the Antarctic environment and its “wilderness” values from the negative impacts of tourism (PEPAT, Article 3(1)). This is an subject that has occupied a number of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs), who form the decision-making group within the ATS, and resulted in a recent question by The Netherlands to fellow ATCPs as to whether “a system of obligatory or voluntary payments by individual tourists or tourist organizations (as a payment for ‘ecosystem services’)?” should be established within the ATS (The Netherlands, ATCM XI, 2012).
This paper considers the Dutch question about payment for ecosystem services in Antarctica as a potential tourism regulatory tool. It also examines the legal and related political issues that a proposal for introduction of ecosystem services would generate in an area of the earth which, de facto, is treated as an international commons, but is also the site of continuing contestation and challenge over abeyant claims to sovereignty by seven states within the ATCP group. Issues canvassed in this context include: the different political-philosophical approaches to tourism and the environment evinced by the ATCPs; the limited number of states signatory to the Treaty and the increase in non-state actor activity in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters, and concomitant difficulties of monitoring and compliance in a geographically expansive and remote area of the earth; and the potential of ecosystem services in Antarctica to help realise some of the United Nations’ post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.