Polar exploration

Antarctica concerns grow as tourism numbers rise

 

Associated Press

Across most of Earth, a tourist attraction that sees 35,000 visitors a year can safely be labeled sleepy. But when it’s Antarctica, every footstep matters.

Tourism is rebounding here five years after the financial crisis stifled what had been a burgeoning industry. And it’s not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in “adventure tourism” like skydiving and scuba diving under the ever-sunlit skies of a Southern Hemisphere summer.

In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, that tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be an exceptionally long way off.

The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done. An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and neither of those is yet in force.

“I think there’s been a foot off the pedal in recent years,” said Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions. “If it takes five years, 10 years to bring even what you agree into force, it’s very difficult to micromanage these sorts of developments.”

Antarctic tourism has grown from fewer than 2,000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08. Then the numbers plummeted, bottoming out at fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12. Tour operators predict 35,000 visitors for the 2012-2013 season, which runs November to March.

It’s not just the numbers of tourists but the activities that are changing, said Hemmings, who has been part of a delegation representing New Zealand in some Antarctic Treaty discussions.

“What used to be Antarctic tourism in the late `80s through the `90s was generally people of middle age or older going on cruises and small ships where they went ashore at a few locations and they looked at wildlife, historic sites and maybe visited one current station,” he said. “But there’s an increasing diversification of the activities now so it’s much more action orientated. Now people want to go paragliding, waterskiing, diving or a variety of other things.”

Visitors can also skydive over the frigid landscape, and London-based Henry Cookson Adventures took two and three-man submarines to Antarctica in the latest summer.

On Ross Island, a stark black-and-white outcrop of ice on porous, volcanic rock, the active volcano Mt. Erebus stands as a warning of the dangers of tourism in this remote and hostile environment. In 1979, an Air New Zealand airliner on a sightseeing tour from Auckland slammed into the mountain in whiteout conditions, killing all 257 people aboard. After that disaster, sightseeing flights over Antarctica did not resume until the mid-1990s.

Some of the earliest attempts at skydiving in Antarctica also ended in tragedy. Two Americans and an Austrian died in the same jump in 1997 near the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the geographic South Pole. Hypoxia – a lack of oxygen – is a suspected reason why the skydivers failed to deploy their parachutes in time. Antarctica is not only the world’s coldest, driest and windiest continent, but also the highest. While Antarctica is as big as the United States and Mexico combined, tourists and scientists for the most part keep to areas that aren’t permanently frozen and where wildlife can be found. Those account for less than 2 percent of the continent.

It’s a land of many hazards, not all of them obvious. The dry air makes static electricity a constant threat to electronics and a fire risk when refueling vehicles. Residents quickly get into the habit of touching metal fixtures as they pass, and metal discharge plates are set beside all telephones and computer keyboards.

Most tourists arrive on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is easily accessible from Argentina and Chile. The next most popular destination is the Ross Sea on the opposite side of the continent, a 10-day sail from New Zealand or Australia.

Both landscapes are intensely bright and profoundly silent during the 17 weeks between sunrise and sunset in the summer. The peninsula is a milder environment and has a wider variety of fauna and flora.

Antarctic New Zealand’s environment manager Neil Gilbert said more robust monitoring is needed to track impacts of tourism.

“The Antarctic Peninsula … is one of if not the most rapidly warming part of the globe,” Gilbert said. “We really don’t know what additional impact that those tourism numbers … are having on what is already a very significantly changing environment.”

There are fears that habitat will be trampled, that tourists will introduce exotic species or microbes or will transfer native flora and fauna to parts of the continent where they never before existed.

A major fear is that a large cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers will run into trouble in these ice-clogged, storm-prone and poorly charted waters, creating an environmentally disastrous oil spill and a humanitarian crisis for the sparsely resourced Antarctic research stations and distant nations to respond to.

To reduce the risk of spills, the United Nations’ shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, barred the use of heavy fuel oil below 60 degrees latitude south in 2011. That was a blow to operators of large cruise ships but only a temporary obstacle to industry growth; large ocean liners can comply with the ban by using lighter distillate fuels in Antarctic waters. About 9,900 passengers are believed to have visited Antarctica on large cruise ships is the season now ending, double the total from 2011-12.

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