Although some will always prefer more cosmopolitan pleasures, there is no denying that, to many, the unspoilt wilderness has a perennial attraction. Shelley captured the appeal well:

"I love all waste And solitary places; where we taste The pleasure of believing what we see Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be"

No one wants to see penguins begging for food like pizza-scavenging racoons in Yosemite.

Perennial though this desire is, it is also paradoxical. The lure of the wilderness depends to a large part on the absence of humans — and its experience depends on the presence of at least one, and normally more. Few go into the wild alone.

These poetic passions are spurring debate in Baltimore, Maryland, where the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that agreement by holding their first joint meeting with the Arctic Council. The two-week meeting ends on 17 April. Antarctica is the planet's greatest wilderness, and the number of people wanting to visit it increases every year. Growing global affluence — even in these recessionary times — means that more and more can do so. The continent, once the preserve of expeditions whose numbers were counted in dozens, now sees almost 50,000 tourists a season, and the numbers look set to rise.

This poses both practical and ideological problems. Antarctica is a long way from anywhere — that's part of the point — and its waters can be treacherous. Tour vessels get into trouble there with some regularity, and have to be rescued by ships, aircraft and personnel that have been diverted from their mission to support Antarctic science. Moreover, although the continent is vast, tourists often go to only a few places, thus concentrating their impact on the extremely fragile ecosystem.

For these reasons, the United States has proposed that the Antarctic Treaty be amended to discourage large tour vessels, and to allow no more than 100 people to go ashore at any one time. Such an amendment, which would codify the practices already followed by responsible tour operators — although not by everyone in the business — should indeed be adopted. This cold earth, more so even than Earth in general, needs to be trod on lightly, and there is a compelling need for regulations to ensure that is the case. No one wants to see penguins begging for food like pizza-scavenging racoons in Yosemite.

But the regulations need to focus on impacts — including effects on scientific activities of high value — rather than on total numbers per se. For small and delicate places such as the Galapagos Islands it may make sense to argue, as the Galapagos Conservation Trust does, that every tourist should limit him or herself to a single visit, thus maximizing the number of unique human experiences for a given level of tourism. But Antarctica is far from small. If people want to go there, and they travel responsibly, they should be allowed and even encouraged. The snobbishness that some nature lovers fall prey to — it's for me and my soul-achingly deep appreciation, not hoi polloi — should be resisted. The fact that so many people care so much for natural beauty that they will go literally to the end of the Earth for it is a fine thing; it should be celebrated and indulged as much as is practical.

Purists for whom this will be desecration should start making plans to visit the yet more inhospitable wildernesses of the Moon. If they hurry they may get there before Richard Branson opens a hotel.