Antarctica’s march of the tourists

Antarctica may be the world’s final frontier, but that hasn’t stopped tourism growing at a phenomenal rate on its astonishing frozen wastes. As you would imagine the figures are a fraction of those of other exotic destinations, however unlike any other continent in the world, visitor numbers to Antarctica have more than tripled in just 10 years. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), the number of landed tourists that visited the continent soared from 7,413 in 1996-7 to 26,245 onboard 211 voyages in 2005-6 during the ‘passable summer’ season of November to March. More than 95 per cent of visitors travel with IAATO member companies.

Story by Andy Round

The association’s predictions are that these figures will increase again by an estimated 2,400 by next March. “A total of 80 Antarctica-bound outfitters are voluntary members of our organisation,” said Denise Landau, executive director of the IAATO.

More worrying the British Antarctic Survey predicts that by 2010, the number could soar to 80,000. And these figures raise dozens of questions. To what extent are trips being regulated? Are tour operators starting to see this a potentially lucrative cruise market? And is the ecology being damaged by hordes of sweater-wearing tourists scaring off the penguins with their digi-cams while their cruise ships pump sewage into pristine waters?

“We need to get regulations in place before it is too late,” says Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant working for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), that represents 200 conservation organisations in 40 countries. “We are not opposed to tourism but we are concerned with how to manage it safely so we don’t mess it up for future tourists and scientists.”

The coalition said visitors can now parachute, ski, ride a motorbike or fly a helicopter across the continent with huge interest expected to be fuelled by the recent success of the documentary March of the Penguins.

“Just about anything can now be pandered to by commercial operators. Large numbers of people land at key wildlife and historic sites,” said executive director of the ASOC. “Mass commercial tourism requires the sorts of controls that the industry has to accept everywhere else. The alternative is a free-for-all.”

Hemmings says most tour operators and cruise boats dump their waste responsibly, however he believes a limit should be put on the number of tourists before they reach 100,000 a year. “The intensity of activity should be limited, vehicles and helicopters going ashore, and there should be an independent body to regulate environmental impact.”

The organisation quotes a complaint by one Antarctic visitor, Lucy Bishop, who claimed people were “clambering” over colonies of penguins in “pursuit of the killer photograph… but the guides didn’t seem bothered.”

Operators such as Journey Latin America support his views. “We agree visitor numbers to Antarctica should not be allowed to increase to a level which could cause damage to such a fragile and precious eco-system,” said a spokesperson.

Two of the five per cent of operators who are not signed up with the IAATO include Marco Polo operated by Orient Lines and Voyages of Discovery whose cruise ship typically sails with about 500 passengers. “We haven’t signed up because the membership fees penalise larger ships like ours,” said managing director of Voyages of Discovery. “But we are a great deal more strict than some smaller ships. If people breach our guidelines, we don’t allow them ashore again.”

Antarctica expert Dr Maj De Poorter believes the problem lies with the number of different operators involved who are all protecting commercial interests. The scientist argues that although most IAATO members produce Environmental Impact Assessments, operators need to produce joint reports before the season starts. This will enable them to work out how their activities damage each other and the environment as well as work out a strategy to limit any impact.

“One shore visit by one vessel to a particular colony may have a negligible impact but what about several ships a day, several days in a row?” the scientist asks. “In practice this will almost certainly require limits on where to visit and on the number of ships or people allowed into a particular region or site.”

The irony is that many the ecologically minded organisations see great potential in a symbiotic relationship between tourism and the environment. During the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in June this year, for instance, it was suggested that for the new season at the end of 2006 that visitors could be encouraged to help the monitoring and photographing of wildlife. It was said that visitors have already contributed more than 1,2000 photographs of whales to the Antarctic Whale Catalogue and helped with killer whale census reporting.

“Still it remains to be seen whether the opportunities for future collaboration can be achieved from tourism ships with their busy schedules, even with a scientist on board,” concluded a report on the meeting.

Still IAATO does its best to control the situation, but it is understandably impossible to regulate every operator. Association members (always recommended to visitors) must follow regulations and restrictions that include the number of people ashore at any one time (maximum 100); cruise ships carrying more than 500 are not permitted to make landings; activity and site guidelines; one guide for each 20 passengers; wildlife watching pre- and post-visit reporting; crew and staff briefings; waste control; Antarctic experience for staff (at least 75 per cent) as well as the expected medical and contingency evacuation plans. “Less than 10 sites receive around 10,000 visitors each season,” says the IAATO.

Additionally cruise vessels are expected to help transport approximately 100 researchers and supplies every year to projects and make financial contributions to organisations such as the Whale Identification Project or the Scott Polar Research Institute.

However, the ASOC says that often operators often land with more than 100 passengers and believes the IAATO’s code should be legally binding. “There is also a need for outside pressure and a limit on the size of ships” says the organisation’s Estelle van der Merwe.

The association says the environmental regulations are the tightest in the world and are respected by operators who often have tours in other parts of the world. “Our agreed best practices demonstrate that first-hand, environmentally responsible tourism is possible in remote and fragile wilderness areas,” says Landau.

After all it is in the best financial interest of operators to protect the Antarctic environment. “So far thousands have been able to experience and appreciate the Antarctic wilderness with much less environmental impact than in any other part of the globe,” says Landau. “the more people can see and experience it in an environmentally responsible way, the better chance it will be well managed for future generations.”

Or to put this more brutally. “The tour industry’s attitude toward the Antarctic environment will determine its fate,” says Dr De Poorter.


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