Eco-tourists travelling to Antarctica are adding to global warming which is melting the polar ice caps, new research has found.

The South Pole has become a popular tourism destination recently with more than 40,000 sight-seers, including 7,000 from Britain, arriving in the area every year. Most travel in cruise ships to view the ice caps and wildlife such as penguins.

But it is feared the influx of “eco-tourists is causing “horrendous” pollution from ship fuel and rubbish, as well as disturbing wildlife in one of the last pristine landscapes left on Earth.

Dutch researcher Machiel Lamers, who was commissioned by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to study the environmental impacts of increased tourism in the polar region, said it could even be making global warming worse.

“The visitors to the snow-covered landmass are endangering not just the Antarctic region by their actions, but also the rest of the world,” he said.

“The 40,000 ‘eco-tourists’ who visit the South Pole every year cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions.

“Tourism is a boom industry in Antarctica. Where, a mere 20 years or so ago, just a few hundred tourists would set off towards the South Pole, more than 40,000 inquisitive souls journeyed to the southernmost point on Earth last winter.”

A two-week Antarctic cruise currently costs from about £3,500.

Mr Lamers said the benefits of Antarctic tourism had to be balanced with the environmental impacts.

“While tourism has many advantages to offer the South Pole, the increasing influx causes horrendous pollution,” he said.

“The local environment is under pressure, more and larger ships are going there, tourists are perpetually looking for ‘tougher, faster, more’ and there’s actually no-one to keep this all on the right track.

“The South Pole is managed by an international consortium of countries, but no-one is really in charge on the ground. There is no policy setting out any limits for tourism.”

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators has imposed stringent bio-safety protocols to keep out seeds and insects and has promised to respect the environment.

However Mr Lamers said there needs to be a binding international treaty that will limit the number of tourists and landings allowed in Antarctica.

Although the Antarctic Treaty has called for limits this involves just 28 nations and needs to be strengthened.

“It is in [the tourist operators] own interests not to have too many tourists coming at the same time, no-one goes to Antarctica to find six other shiploads of tourists there,” he said.

“It is time for clear rules; vague agreements are not enough any more.”