Besieged by tourism, the Antarctic is under threat
Antarctica’s marine environment is under new and severe pressures as thousands flock to see its icy landscapes.Global warming is not the only factor that is slowly degrading Antarctica’s unique environment.
The Antarctic wilderness is also attracting a growing number of tourists keen to experience the icy landscape.
In 1992, around 6,000 nature-lovers made the long journey south. By last season, the number rose to 46,000 -- a clear sign of the boom in travel to the area surrounding the South Pole. It also marks an increase in the number of shipping operators offering cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula during the five-month period from November to March.
The onslaught of tourists has lead many to call for new guidelines that would impose more stringent controls on the number of vessels visiting the region.
The voluntary International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), set up in 1991, already has some guidelines in place. Primarily, they stipulate how many ships a year may visit the peninsula and where they must dock.
Vessels with more than 500 passengers on board are prohibited from landing, something that should be borne in mind by those eager to sample the genuine atmosphere of an Antarctic expedition.
Princess Cruises currently deploys the largest ships in the Antarctic. Last year, the company offered sightseeing trips aboard the Golden Princess, with 2,600 passengers and 1,100 crew. This year, its sister ship, the Star Princess, will be setting sail.
Bearing in mind the regulations, travelers on these ships would be well advised to take along a high-powered telescope if they want to take in the grandeur of the landscape.
Ecosystem under threat
Last season, the IAATO issued permission to 61 cruise ships -- nearly twice as many as five years ago.
Under the IAATO code of conduct, ships visiting Antarctica must be powered by diesel rather than the heavy fuel oils normally used by many vessels and water and waste may not be discharged into Antarctic waters.
Yet, many feel that these guidelines are inadequate.
"When it comes to tonnage there is a degree of insensibility," said Sebastian Ahrens, managing director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises in Hamburg.
Hapag-Lloyd helped set up the IAATO but would now prefer operators to be strictly regulated rather than rely on voluntary compliance. "If you cruise along certain parts of the Norwegian coast, the authorities keep a very close watch, but for the Antarctic no clearly defined rules apply," said Ahrens.
A number of shipping lines have already reacted to the Antarctic overcrowding. Norway's Hurtigruten is sending the MS Fram to see penguins for the 2008-2009 season but not its sister ship MS Nordnorge. Speaking in Hamburg, the company's managing director Bernd Stolzenberg said the move was in response to the "increasingly difficult Antarctic market."