Cold/Windy and Altitude
A continent where there are more penguins than people, a region that does not have an independent government, Antarctica is like no other place on the planet. Although it is bleak, extremely cold (-128.6 F), and experiences localized blizzards with life-threatening ferocious winds, eager travelers started to frequent the destination in the 1950s. Tourism increased in the 1960s when the world’s first tourist ship was built for polar exploration. Currently, 30 expedition ships cover the region and range from luxurious high-tech, ice-class vessels, ocean liners, and yachts for tourists, to chartered Russian icebreakers for scientists.
In the peak tourism years (2006-2007), approximately 45,000 tourists visited the continent (November-March), including 14,000 who saw it from the deck of a cruise ship (they never landed). Most visitors were from ports in Argentina and Chile, plus a small percentage from Australia, New Zealand, and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).
Because of the economy, the number of visitors has dropped and is likely to contract even further as a result of new fuel restrictions. It is estimated that fewer than 27,000 passengers will actually see Antarctica in 2011.
Ever Watchful of Antarctica
Closely watching and monitoring the ships, advocating the safety of travelers, and protecting and preserving the environment is Steve Wellmeier, the executive director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an organization composed of 110 members – all supportive of safe and responsible private sector travel to the continent of Antarctica.
Because of the lure of the region, some yachts enter the area without appropriate authorization. According to Wellmeier, “Visiting the Antarctic is not something that yacht operators should take lightly…” Even a novice would have a clue that storm-force winds, drifting ice, and bad anchorage are not climate issues to be taken lightly. In the past, according to Wellmeier “private yachts have gotten into difficulties…because they were not … prepared” causing damage to the environment and historic sites, and entering protected areas off-limits to visitors.
Benefits of Tourism
In addition to the tourist interest in the locale, the vessels bring scores of scientists to the area for research, and passengers and tour operators contribute to Antarctic-related causes, raising over US$500,000 in 2007-2008. Visitors also increase public awareness of the fragile eco-systems and support the marketing concept of Lars-Eric Lindblad, the father of Antarctic tourism, “You can’t protect what you don’t know.”
Protect the Passenger and the Environment
The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty requires that all private-sector tour operators file a(n):
1. Notification of planned activities with their Antarctic Treaty competent authority.
2. Environmental impact statement, with the objective of having limited and transitory impact on the Antarctic environment.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has specific guidelines for tourist vessels entering the area:
1. If they are carrying more than 500 passengers, they are not permitted to make landings.
2. If they are making landings, they are not allowed more than 100 passengers ashore at the same time.
3. Prohibiting the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils in Antarctic (as of 2011).
Technology Supports Safety
Starting this month (October 2010), continued IAATO membership will be dependent upon participation in the association’s satellite-based vessel tracking system that enables association vessels to be tracked on a single website.
On a regular basis, the ships can be pinged from shore enabling ship-to-shore communication in the case of an emergency. There is also a link to Google Earth that is layered with recent satellite-derived ice information. Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers and the US Coast Guard’s Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue Systems can access the web in order to take the “search” out of “search and rescue,” according to Wellmeier. This information, combined with detailed contact ship data, provides the obligatory information demanded during an emergency. The data is also useful for scientific research, with a special focus on the environment.
Not Total Agreement
Not everyone believes that ecotourism to Antarctica is in the best interest of the region. Dutch researcher, Machiel Lamers, finds that visitors are endangering the region, as well as the rest of the world.
Antarctica is managed by an international consortium of countries with no one really in charge on the ground, according to Lamers. The closest entity to management are the tour operators, and Lamers feels that while this self-regulation is operationally efficient and effective at the moment, he fears that the situation could quickly change and he advocates preparation for a long-term plan that address such issues as: a) an approval process for commercial development, and b) definitive statements as to the responsibility for stranded tourists.
Lamers research was funded by the Netherland Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and formed part of the Netherland Polar Program http://www.nwo.nl/nwohome.nsf/pages/NWOA_4YDGAT_Eng
The mission of IAATO, a member organization founded in 1991, is to advocate, promote, and practice safe and environmentally-responsible, private-sector travel to the Antarctic. Leading the organization is Steve Wellmeier. In 2008, Wellmeier was marketing vice president for Elegant Cruises and Tours. Prior to this position, he was associated with FEMA and the NY State Development Corporation where he assisted in the 9/11 World Trade Center recovery effort. He has also been associated with INTRAVE and Clipper Cruise Line as marketing vice president. IAATO information: www.iaato.org