Country report - 2. Antarctica

Posted: 3 July 2001

Author: Bernard Stoneshouse

Small is beautiful in the planet's crystal wonderlandPossibly the world's least likely venue for popular tourism, Antarctica is an ice-bound wilderness far removed from civilization. Yet even here tourism pressures are building up, as Bernard Stonehouse reports.

Explorers in the 19th and early 20th century returned from Antarctica with stories of ice, blizzards and bitter cold. Dangers abounded and heroics were essential: with no human population of its own, Antarctica was a continent for real men. Tourists were unthinkable.

Tourism began, however, in December 1956, when a sightseeing flight circled part of the continent, and in January 1958 when the first cruise ship entered Antarctic waters. Both were successful ventures, displaying a harsh but rewarding wonderland of ice, snow and wildlife. Yet Antarctic tourism was slow to catch on. Distances were great and costs proportionately high. Few South Americans were rich enough to take part. North Americans and Europeans had to travel half the length of the world before starting their Antarctic voyage.

Lars Eric Lindblad, a Swedish-American entrepreneur, specializing in adventure travel, began regular cruises in the southern summer 1966-67. Others followed his lead, and shipborne tourism to Antarctica is now well established. Overflights, never so popular, have a more fitful history, tinged with the tragedy of a fatal crash in November 1979 that cost the lives of 257 passengers and crew. However, several overflights are now available each summer from Australia and South America.

Today Antarctic cruising is widely advertised. The season runs from early November to early March - approximately 18 weeks in which the seasonal pack ice surrounding Antarctica retreats, and snow disappears from some of the coasts. The continent basks in a brief, cool summer; temperatures run close to freezing point, and there are possibilities of one or two warm, sunny days - though seldom more - in a ten-day vacation.

Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula© Colin Monteath/TCSCurrently about 130 cruises visit Antarctica each year, carrying some 12,000-14,000 tourists - a tiny number compared with even the daily tally in a sizeable national park. Most voyages take eight to 15 days, starting and ending in Ushuaia, the world's southern-most city in Argentine Tierra del Fuego. Alternative ports in the South American sector are Punta Arenas, Chile, and Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. A few voyages each year start from Tasmania or southern New Zealand, to visit the Ross Sea sector of Antarctica.

A very few tourists reach Antarctica by air. Each year small parties of climbers, adventurers and professional photographers take relatively expensive airborne tours to inland mountains or almost any other point in Antarctica, including the South Pole itself. They fly from South America, South Africa or the Antipodes, land on snow or wind-polished ice runways, and live in simple but well-organized camps, trekking, climbing and photographing for two to three weeks in a luxury of complete isolation.

A shipborne cruise in Antarctic waters bears little resemblance to the average Caribbean or Mediterranean luxury cruise. Comfort, even luxury, there may well be on board, but above decks or ashore Antarctic tourists must be ready for foul weather, harsh conditions and a measure of danger.

Woollies, hooded parkas, waterproofs and wellies are recommended wear. Running ashore in inflatable boats, passengers are liable to be huffed by gales, soaked by rain, sleet and salt spray, and tumbled by surf on exposed landings. Ashore they scramble over rocks and cobbles, wade ankle-deep in penguin guano, stagger across windswept stony deserts and stumble through snowfields. Almost all enjoy every minute of it. Most travel in small ships carrying up to 100 passengers. Before they reach Antarctica, and again toward the end of their voyage, passengers face two days in the Drake Passage, a particularly rough bit of ocean that can test their sea legs to the limit.

Tourist attractions

What are the attractions? We have asked many hundreds of tourists, and found that practically all, especially in the South American sector, are turned on by the splendid alpine scenery, the glaciers, the icebergs and floes.penguinsBernard Stonehouse greets the locals© Colin Monteath/TCSEven more they appreciate the wildlife - the penguins in their breeding colonies, the albatrosses and swarms of lesser petrels, the skuas, gulls and terns, the seals and whales.

Nearly all have an ear for the history of exploration: a chief attractions of the New Zealand sector is to visit historic McMurdo Sound and the huts of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions.

A recent development has been the advent into Antarctic waters of much larger cruise ships, carrying a thousand or more passengers. During cruises that take in the Chilean Fjords and Patagonia, they spend three to four days in the sector of Antarctica south of South America. Their passengers make no landings: they watch the changing scene from observation decks, hear running commentaries by polar experts, and see slide and video shows.

Most of the tour operators working Antarctica belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which binds both operators and clients to high standards of environmentally-benign behaviour. All operators tend to follow the pattern set originally by Lars Eric Lindblad. Each cruise is an expedition and tourists are expeditioners, visiting a little-known part of the world in the company of experienced guides. Staff lecture on the history and natural history of the region, accompany the passengers ashore, and are always on hand to explain or discuss.

Sensitive tourism

This is good practice, which fortunately helps to sell tickets. Antarctic cruises have little appeal for environmentally insensitive tourists. Already disposed to be protective, Antarctic shipborne tourists receive thorough briefings and indoctrination aboard, and are kept up the mark by their guides (and indeed by each other) during their shore visits. It is as well that the tour operators undertook environmental responsibility from the start, and even better that they find it advantageous to continue.

Governance of Antarctica rests with the Antarctic Treaty System which, though politically admirable, has been slow to respond to the challenges of a developing industry. Hampered by absence of sovereignty, the System is gradually coming to grips with problems of environmental protection. Even now it has little capacity for directly managing or protecting the 200 or more sites where tourists land, far less for managing in any sense the industry as a whole.

Some Antarctic scientists and administrators oppose tourism because they fear it will interfere with science, to which they have dedicated the continent. Some conservationists oppose it because they fear that tourists are already trampling vegetation, disturbing wildlife and spreading litter, and must continue to do so on an increasing scale. Our Cambridge-based group has for 12 years studied the growth of Antarctic tourism, especially its impacts on Antarctic flora and fauna.

In general, we have found a well-run industry, living up to a sound record for environmental concern, led by a professional association that promotes sound environmental practices. Both operators and tourists accept IAATO-inspired guidelines as sensible and workable.

We have worked with a dozen or more responsible tour operators and a few that were less responsible. Cutting costs by reducing crew and field staff, we found, was the single fault most likely to bring problems both to the industry and to the Antarctic environment. We have recommended IAATO to increase inspection of its members, and be more ready to apply sanctions when performance slips.

We have recorded much damage to beds of moss and other vegetation due to breeding seals and similar natural causes, noting how quickly they recover. We have found very little such damage due to tourists, who are warned to avoid walking on vegetation and usually take care not to. We have set up long-term study plots to study growth of vegetation and compaction of soils, which hold the as-yet undiscovered key to a controversial issue.

We have found no litter due to tourists. Sadly, there is plenty due to the scientists and support staff to whom Antarctica is dedicated. They are only now beginning to clean up after themselves - prompted roundly by the complaints of tourists and conservation groups.

We invented ways of monitoring heart-rates of incubating penguins to measure disturbance, and are comparing stresses due to visiting tourists with those due to neighbouring pairs and predators that penguins encounter in everyday life. Recently we have done the same for elephant seals and other species that come into contact with parties of tourists.

We have found that even frequent visits by well-ordered tourists, who keep the prescribed distance of five metres from birds, and behave quietly and sensibly, cause virtually no stress. So far we have detected no measurable effects on colony size, breeding behaviour, breeding success, or levels of interaction by predators. Some other breeding species of birds - for example gulls, terns and possibly giant petrels - are more twitchy in the presence of human visitors, and need special care when tourists are about.

Seals too seem largely indifferent to the presence of human visitors who keep their distance, and above all keep quiet: noise is far more disruptive to seals than movement or other forms of disturbance. We conclude that tourists who use common sense and observe the guidelines exert little impact on wildlife. The few who do not need to be kept under strict control - much stricter control than seems currently possible.

Low impact

We have assembled data on more than 200 tourist landing sites and studied the 40-or-so most popular ones in detail. Most are undamaged by visits from several thousand tourists each year. In only a few are we starting to see signs of wear and tear - notably paths across barren ground that persist from one season to the next. Elsewhere in the world we would expect a management authority to step in and rest these over-used sites. In Antarctica we draw our findings to the attention of IAATO: fortunately the tour companies and cruise leaders find it in their own interests to avoid sites where damage is patent.

We find few efforts by authorities ashore to welcome, educate or inform tourists, which seems to us a seriously-missed opportunity. We have helped to establish an information and education centre at Henryk Arctowski, a Polish research station, where tourists can learn more of Antarctica, and we can learn more of tourists.

In general terms, we are satisfied that tourism as it is currently practised in Antarctica is environmentally sustainable. It stands a chance of remaining so for as long as the industry remains small and mainly shipborne, continuing its current codes of practice, with environmental sensitivity an important selling point.

However, the signs are that, like other forms of tourism the world over, it will not remain static. Slowly but steadily it is increasing in volume and diversifying. Younger passengers are demanding - and receiving - more active and participatory forms of tourism. However, should tourists numbers increase threefold or more, should land-based tourism continue to proliferate and diversify, should shifts in practice alter the ethical basis of the industry, it will not, as some environmentalists seem to suggest, mark the end of Antarctica as we know it. It will simply increase environmental risks in specific parts of the Antarctic environment, and intensify the need for remedies - including more realistic forms of environmental management - than are provided at present.

Dr Bernard Stonehouse leads the Polar Ecology and Management Group at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. He has spent four winters and many summers in Antarctica and on the Southern Ocean islands, and is currently leading a twelve-year field study of Antarctic tourism. He has written 'The Last Continent', A Travellers' Guide to Antarctica (SCP Publications).