Antarctic tourism walks a tightrope

Rising tourism is threatening Antarctica’s pristine wilderness.

Andrew James reports.

A century ago, distance and extreme cold meant that Antarctica was only a place for the bravest – or some would say foolhardy – of explorers. Modern technology has changed all that. Now cruise liners with up to a thousand passengers travel through Antarctic waters while Goretex-clad adventurers pay top dollar to kayak in Antarctic bays or extreme-ski down polar mountains.

Only in the last decade has the Antarctic tourist trade taken off. In the early ‘90s about 5,000 tourists a year travelled to Antarctica, mainly in small, ice-strengthened vessels. In 2003, the British Antarctic Survey predicted that the number of visitors arriving in Antarctica on cruise ships could be over 27,000 a year by the end of the decade. That figure has already been reached. Last year, there were more than 28,000 visitors, and if the growth continues at the same rate it could be up to 80,000 by 2010.

Tourists that set foot on Antarctica are concentrated in biologically rich sites, and historic or current sites of human activity. Tourism is focused on the Antarctic Peninsula at 20 or so sites known for fantastic wildlife and stunning scenery. The impact of these routine tourism operations is not yet well known, despite industry claims that there has been no impact from several decades of tourism.

Achieving a balance between tourism and managing the pristine wilderness is worrying environmentalists. They are concerned not just by the rising number of tourists but by the changing nature of Antarctic tourism.

Large cruise liners run by global companies are now entering the Antarctic tourist trade, marking the beginning of mass tourism in Antarctica. Operating out of South American ports like Ushuaia, southern Argentina these vast, thin-skinned (non-ice-strengthened) vessels can carry up to a thousand passengers. They also carry huge quantities of heavy oil, one of the worst marine pollutants. “The effects of one sinking or running aground would be disastrous”, says an environmentalist.

While the environmental impact of fifty tourists turning up at a penguin colony or historic hut may be minimal, 800 to 1,000 is a different story.