Antarctic tourism has been growing exponentially, bringing with it a host of concerns about the environmental and safety problems associated with large numbers of visitors. Researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands recently proposed an interesting solution: cap the number of tourist days and auction off the rights to those days to tourism operators. This system is similar to the cap-and-trade measures proposed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but unlike that system, a tourism auction system raises serious questions about fairness. Travel to the Antarctic continent is already expensive, and this system could drive prices higher. Since Antarctica is a global commons, it seems unfair to institute controls which could make tourism even more inaccessible to the average person. However, the proceeds from the auction of tourism rights could provide much-needed revenue for the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat (ATS) and its environmental protection programs.
The Antarctic environment would benefit from increased regulation and control of the burgeoning tourist industry, but it would be preferable for the ATS to ensure that any system it implements protects the environment without turning Antarctica into the sole province of the superrich.