February 12, 2009

Recession Causes Dip In Antarctic Tourism

The suffering economy has slowed tourism to Antarctica, much to the delight of environmentalists who seek to avoid any further damage to the world's last big wilderness, Reuters reported.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) said the number of visitors to the icy continent is likely to fall to 39,000 in the 2008-09 summer season from a record 46,000 a year ago.

Steve Wellmeier, executive director of the association, projected those numbers could rebound to 43,000 next season but not challenge the record until 2011 or 2012.

Tourists are drawn to Antarctica for the rich wildlife such as penguins and seals along with jagged mountains, glaciers and icebergs. Fewer than 1,000 a year visited until the early 1980s.

But environmentalist have sought to curb tourism to the continent over worries including shipwrecks, oil spills and an aggravation of stresses on animals and plants that may already be suffering from climate change.

Jim Barnes, head of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), which groups 100 environmental organizations, believes the growth trajectory for tourism in Antarctica has been too steep.

ASOC wrote in a submission to the 47 members of the Antarctic Treaty before an annual meeting in Baltimore stating: "Sooner rather than later (governments) will need to address the issue of overall visitor numbers."

"ASOC would prefer to see a conservative overall figure that is in the order of magnitude of present total numbers," it said. Some governments have spoken of caps but have not set numbers."

However, members of the tourist association say such fears are exaggerated.

"We're talking about a continent that is larger than Australia and we're talking about a number of tourists that would fill a football stadium," Wellmeier said. He believes there is no evidence that tourism damaged Antarctica.

Yves Frenot, deputy head of the French Polar Institute, said the increase in visitor numbers is in the context of global warming. "The presence of visitors enhances the risks to the environment," he said.

He said tourists could inadvertently bring in new seeds, spores or even diseases that could settle in a slightly warmer environment.

In November 2007, the first sinking off Antarctica of a cruise ship, the MV Explorer, also highlighted risks for tourists. More than 150 passengers and crew were rescued before the vessel sank off King George Island.

And in early 2007, a Norwegian cruise ship ran aground on Deception Island off Antarctica.

The head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, Jose Retamales, criticized use of large cruise liners off Antarctica. Non-binding guidelines say operators must have their own search and rescue backups and many tour ships stay within range of each other.

"I'm worried about some excesses," he said. "Just 200 people aboard a vessel is a big risk.

The biggest ships, run by Princess Cruises, have more than 3,000 people aboard. Wellmeier said such vessels were modern, stayed clear of icebergs and do not let tourists land on Antarctica.

Smaller cruise ships allow tourists to make day trips ashore and return to their cabins overnight, as IAATO opposes any construction of hotels on Antarctica. The few tourists who visit the interior stay in tents.

Keith Heger of PolarExplorers, who led five people to ski the last 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the South Pole in January, said he aims to leave only footprints and take back only photos and memories.

"Trash and even human waste created is brought out," he added.


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