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Tourism in Antarctica

There is no doubt Antarctica is an incredible tourist destination. It is a magnificent and largely uninhabited wilderness with majestic mountains, glaciers, icebergs and abundant wildlife. Its remoteness, inaccessibility and severe climate add an element of adventure to a visit to Antarctica.

Tourists enjoy lunch on stern deck of cruise vessel, Antarctic Peninsula.

Visitor numbers have increased rapidly over the last few decades. During the 1998-99 summer season, over 10000 tourists visited Antarctica compared with less than 2000 19 years ago. Tours are organised by private companies and people from all over the world make the journey to see the icy continent.

The trend of increasing visitor numbers has led the Antarctic Treaty countries to establish guidelines and regulations to minimise the impact of these visitors on this remarkable environment.

Flights to Antarctica Top

Tourists began to visit Antarctica by air in the 1950s when flights over the Antarctic Peninsula were made. In the 1960s commercial flights landed at McMurdo Sound and the South Pole.

Regular overflights ran between 1977 and 1980 with over 11,000 people taking the trip from Australia and New Zealand. At a meeting in 1979 treaty nations expressed concern at the danger of flying in the turbulent Antarctic atmosphere where there was a lack of radio beacons, meteorological stations and emergency services. Navigation is made more difficult by sunspots which can block out radio communication. Later that year, 257 people were killed when one of these overflights struck Mt Erebus in poor visibility. Overflights were resumed in 1994.

Other companies have also made flights over the continent and to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula from nearby Chile. There are also businesses which arrange flights for private climbing expeditions and trips to the South Pole.

Adventure Network International's private tourist base, Ellsworth Mountains.

About 15,000 tourists have seen Antarctica from the air.

Ship-borne Tourists Top

Ship visits by tourists also began in the 1950s with an Argentinian vessel which took 100 passengers to the Argentinian territory on the Antarctic Peninsula. In 1968 the Ross Dependency was visited by a chartered boat with 24 people.

Since then, cruise ships have regularly visited the Antarctic Peninsula, operating from Argentina and Chile.

Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov takes tourists into the Weddell Sea

It is one of the most popular areas to visit because of its proximity to South America, its warmer climate, abundant wildlife and many research stations which are visited by some tours.

Several cruise ships now also operate in the Ross Sea area, operating from Bluff, Lyttelton or Hobart as well as from South America. Landings are made in zodiacs (inflatable rubber boats) at locations such as Cape Adare, Possession Island and Scott Base. Helicopter trips are made from one of the ships to locations such as the Taylor Valley (in the Dry Valleys), Cape Royds and Terra Nova Bay.

Tourists outside Shackleton's 1907 hut, Cape Royds, Royal Society Range behind.

The historic huts are a particular drawcard for visitors to the Ross Sea area, as well as penguin rookeries, whales and seals. Visits to the Ross Sea area are a very small proportion of the total visits to the Antarctic.

A small number of yachts also visit Antarctica each year (approx. 13 in the 1998/99 summer), some with fee-paying passengers.

Aluminium-hulled French yacht "Antarctica", Petermann Island, Antarctic Peninsula

There are no land-based facilities for these tourists and although the visits ashore are short and relatively low in number, they are concentrated at particular locations.

Impact of Tourism Top

Although remoteness and lack of development make Antarctica a difficult and expensive place to visit, there is no shortage of people wanting to make the trip - tourist numbers now exceed the number of scientists and support staff who work there, and are increasing steadily The majority of tourists come from the USA, then Germany and Britain.

Some consider tourists an environmental pressure Antarctica could do without. Others note that the tourists are generally well informed and concerned about the Antarctic environment and usually become very good advocates for the protection of Antarctica when they return home.

US Botanist shows mosses to tourists visiting Palmer Station, Anvers Island.

In the past tourist visits have caused damage to slow growing moss beds, disturbed penguins and taken historic items or geological souvenirs. Rubbish and wastes from ships have also been a problem, as has uninvited visits to scientific bases.

Nowadays groups are much better regulated and impact has reduced in some areas. Nevertheless, accidents can occur with major consequences for the environment, such as the oil spill after the grounding of the tourist and supply ship Bahai Paraiso on the Antarctic Peninsula. Other large cruise ships have also run aground requiring expensive rescue and repair operations.

Some tourist ventures and private expeditions have got into trouble and been assisted by staff from scientific bases. This can be a disruption to research activity as well as placing demands on staff whose responsibilities do not include managing tourists.

Regulations Top

The Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (see sheet 6) does not specifically address tourism, but its provisions go some way to minimising the adverse impacts of tourists because, once ratified, the protocol is legally binding over all visitors to the Antarctic, whether on government or private trips.

In 1994 the Treaty countries made further recommendations on tourism and non-government activities. This "Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic" is intended to help visitors become aware of their responsibilities under the treaty and protocol. The document concerns the protection of Antarctic wildlife and protected areas, the respecting of scientific research, personal safety and impact on the environment. Guidelines have also been written for the organisers of tourist and private ventures - these require prior notification of the trip to the organiser's national authority (eg. Antarctica NZ), assessment of potential environmental impacts, the ability to cope with environmental emergencies such as oil spills, self-sufficiency, the proper disposal of wastes and respect for the Antarctic environment and research activities. The guidelines outline detailed procedures to be followed during the planning of the trip, when in the Antarctic Treaty area and on completion of the trip.

Tourist operators in Antarctica have organised an association (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) to promote safety and environmental responsibility amongst cruise operators. The members of this association carry the majority of tourists to Antarctica.

Individual countries have also introduced measures to minimise effects of tourists. Chile requires all captains of ships that go to Antarctica to attend a month-long school in Antarctic navigation. New Zealand sends a government representative on all ships visiting the Ross Dependency to supervise visits to the historic huts and Scott Base and to observe how well the provisions of the treaty and protocol are adhered to.

Even with reduced impact per visitor, the increasing number of visitors could still have a considerable effect on the environment. Monitoring of impacts at specific sites can be used to determine whether tourists should be allowed to continue to visit a particular area. Although visits are usually short, they are concentrated into a small number of landing sites and have the potential to destroy parts of a unique environment and to jeopardise scientific research.

Antarctic Tourist Attractions Top

Although most people will not have the chance to visit Antarctica, there are several tourist attractions which provide opportunities to learn about and appreciate the Antarctic environment. The Visitor Centre at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, the Antarctic display at the Canterbury Museum and Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience in Auckland are very popular attractions

Visitors to both the Antarctic and these interpretation centres become better informed about the unique Antarctic environment and often have increased enthusiasm for protecting not only Antarctica, but other parts of the natural world.

Further Reading Top

Antarctica (2nd edition). Readers Digest. 1990.

Explore Antarctica. L. Crossley. 1995. Cambridge University Press.

State of the Ice. Greenpeace. 1994.