What impact can a tourist visit to a glacier have?


Desperate to get a view of those impressive glaciers before they disappear from view? You aren’t alone. Throughout many parts of the European Alps 1, China 2, New Zealand 3 and North America 1, increasing numbers of people are flocking to see what soon might not be there… or at least what might be a shadow of its former glory. This of course is a double-edged sword in the sense that it may be both enlightening people to the environmental problems we face as a species while simultaneously exacerbating the problem itself.

“It’s unpleasant to accept that while you’re traveling to a destination before it disappears, you’re in fact destroying it.” – Mark Groulx 1

Visitor numbers for glaciated regions are sometimes difficult to quantify, but there is clear evidence of increasing annual visitor numbers to parts of Chilean Patagonia, for example, and the case of the famous Torres del Paine National Park is an obvious one to mention. Annual numbers to the park have fluctuated from around 6,000 in the middle of the 1980s, to more than 250,000 in 2017 4. This is, of course, great news for all of us nature loving (even potentially eco-) tourists. We get to breathe in the fresh Patagonian air and the amazing sights, hopefully learning something about the landscape and its changes in the process… with stories and photos for our loved ones back home. But this comes at the expense of the future of these pristine places… perhaps even for the people to whom we show the photos?


+ Positive impacts of glacier tourism + 🙂

+ Environmental awareness:
This is dependent upon how the tourism company engages with its clients and what experiences the tourists have. Hikers primarily search for the beauty of the glaciers, but have “poor knowledge of the site’s geomorphology, and have some difficulties in seeing the glacial retreat in the landscape” 5 and in the larger global context. In combination with the rise of attention in the media, education about changes to glaciers and their importance to society may help to strengthen public opinion about the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.

+ Regional tourist income:
Like many tourist destinations, the influx of visitors can help local economies and bring development to areas that may have otherwise been under-developed. In the case of Torres del Paine, most tourists fly to, and invest in local business in Punta Arenas, transfer to Puerto Natales by bus, stay in Puerto Natales and subsequently transfer to the park. Tourism companies that operate glacier hikes, boat circuits and kayaking in front of the impressive Grey Glacier additionally generate income for locals. Entrance fees to the park alone have been key in providing a central source of financing for the maintenance of protected areas which people come to see.


– Negative impacts of glacier tourism – 🙁

– Damage and pollution:
Perhaps a smaller impact, but the greater the number of people that want to visit a glacier or national park that has glaciers, the more damage comes to the natural environment. These damages may not directly affect the glaciers, but may impact the surrounding environment, such as increases in erosion, litter and wildfires 6. Fires may in fact contribute to further melting of glacier ice 7, though the full effects of tourism on this process is not completely quantified.

– Emissions and climate change:
Easily the most damaging impact of global and ‘last chance’ tourism is its carbon footprint. People travel half way across the world to see glacier sights like that in Torres del Paine or Perito Moreno glacier, and this can have a huge environmental impact. Approximately 2% of total worldwide emissions are from aviation alone 8, and while this may not sound huge, this contribution is set to rise along with greater social mobility and disposable income. Put a different way, it is estimated that every round-trip trans-Atlantic flight emits enough carbon dioxide to melt 30 square feet (~9 m2) of Arctic sea ice 8. Multiply that by the number of long haul flights in a day… and this adds up! Check out Flight Radar for a view of all the planes in the sky right now!
On top of emissions from planes alone, all of the buses, cars and boats passing to connect tourists with their glacier destinations also drives up local pollution and has its contribution.


Cited information:

1 “People are flocking to see melting glaciers before they’re gone – bringing both benefit and harm” (2019). Ensia [on-line].  Available at: https://ensia.com/features/melting-glaciers-tourism-impacts/ (last access 07/08/2019)
2 Wang, S-J., Zhou, L-Y (2019) Integrated impacts of climate change on glacier tourism Advances in Climate Change Research. Volume 10, Issue 2, June 2019, Pages 71-79 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.accre.2019.06.006
3 Purdie, H., (2013) Glacier Retreat and Tourism: Insights from New Zealand. Mountain Research and Development. Vol 33 No 4 Nov 2013: pp 463–472
4 José Barrena Ruiz, Machiel Lamers, Simon Bush & Gustavo Blanco Wells (2019) Governing nature-based tourism mobility in National Park Torres del Paine, Chilean Southern Patagonia, Mobilities, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2019.1614335
5 Welling, J., T., (2014) Glacier tourism research ‐ summary of literature scoping. Icelandic Tourism Research Centre. [on-line]. Available at: http://www.rmf.is/static/research/files/1460989699-draft-report-irmf-2014-final-for-printpdf (Last access 07/08/2019)
6 “Irresponsible Tourism and the Forest Fire in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile” (2012) [on-line]. Available at: https://www.thetravelword.com/2012/02/06/irresponsible-tourism-and-the-forest-fire-in-torres-del-paine-national-park-chile-2/ (Last access: 07/08/2019)
7 Keegan, K., M., Albert, M., R., McConnell, J., R., Baker, I. (2014)
Widespread melt events on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2014, 111 (22) 7964-7967; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1405397111
8 “Air travel is surging. That’s a huge problem for the climate” (2019) Vox [on-line]. Available at: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/1/11/18177118/airlines-climate-change-emissions-travel (Last access: 07/08/2019)


Written by Thomas Shaw.
Edited by Equipo Glaciar.