Reports on November 29 claimed that compared to last year, 40 per cent more tourists, numbering about 80,000, are expected to visit Antarctica, the least visited continent in the world.
According to the Antarctic Southern Oceans Coalition (ASOC), there has been a growing interest among tourists to visit the continent, with the number of visitors doubling every couple of years, along with the establishment of “mass tourism destinations”.
As per ASOC, the number of yearly visitors to Antarctica in 1996 was at 9,000.
However, there is also concern that tourism, if unchecked, may become unmanageable.
Tourists from China — who make up the second-largest national group (after the United States) visiting the continent — rose from about 100 in 2005 to about 8,000 in 2017-18, signally an increasing trend of wealthy individuals looking to travel to offbeat destinations.
According to the think tank ‘The Polar Connection’: “As long as the tourist industry can continue this effective self-regulation, problems should not be posed; and IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators ) insists there is still room for tourist numbers to grow. Climate change and rising powers may alter the current balance, and lead to calls for change in the largest source of visitors to the Antarctic.”
Who regulates tourism in Antarctica?
Tourism in Antarctica started around the 1950s, starting out with a few hundred visitors annually to over 38,000 per year in 2015-2016. All human activities on the continent are regulated by the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1960. Working within the mechanism of this treaty is the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a body which was founded in 1991 by seven tour operators to promote safe and environmentally responsible travel in Antarctica.
According to IAATO, 100 companies from countries such as Belgium, Italy, France, Canada, and Chile among others are members today. Not all tour operators are, however, members of IAATO — even though all tours aboard commercial passenger vessels are operated by IAATO members.
The association claims that since tourism in the continent started over four decades ago, there has been “virtually no discernible impact on the environment”.
How much does it cost to go to Antarctica?
Tourists are allowed into the continent during the Antarctic summer, which is the period between November and March.
Travelling to Antarctica is not cheap, and no commercial flights operate to the region, therefore almost all tourists take cruise ships, the majority of which leave from one of the gateway ports in Southern South America, such as Ushuaia in Argentina, Punta Arenas in Chile and Montevideo in Uruguay.
Fewer cruises may operate to the Ross Sea side of the continent and depart from Hobart, Australia, or Lyttelton or Bluff in New Zealand.
According to Lonely Planet, a 10-day cruise to Antarctica can cost up to $4,500 (Rs 3.23 lakh) per person, and the cost for 20-day voyages can go up to $12,750 (Rs 9.15 lakh). This does not include the cost of flight tickets to the boarding point for the cruise.
Alternatively, some tourists can choose to fly to the Chilean base of Frei Station located on the South Shetland Islands and board a cruise to Antarctica directly from here.
The upper limit of the cost to Antarctica can range from anywhere between $40,000-$70,000 (Rs 29 lakh to Rs 50 lakh approximately).
How has Antarctica been changing?
In September, a report on oceans released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that between 2006 and 2015, the Antarctic ice sheet lost about 155 billion tonnes of mass on average every year.
This ice melt from Antarctica likely contributed to sea-level rises.
According to the Australian government’s Department of Environment and Energy, humans have been travelling to Antarctica for over 100 years now, and some of the activities they have been undertaking include harvesting some Antarctic species to the verge of extinction, and contaminating the soil and discharging sewage into the sea.
The main sources of environmental damage to the continent include planet-wide impacts such as global warming, ozone layer depletion, impacts of fishing (only large-scale commercial resource harvest currently undertaken in the region) and hunting (hunting for whales and seals in the early 19th century), and lastly, the impact of visitors which includes scientists and tourists.
While IAATO maintains that the tourism conducted under its banner has virtually no environmental impact on the region, the IAATO rules and guidelines are not mandatory or binding.
In recent years, there has been a concern about the impact that tourism and other human activities are having on the continent.
In June 2019 a study published in ‘Antarctic Science’ said that the world’s second-largest colony of emperor penguins at Halley Bay has suffered an almost complete failure in breeding for three years since 2015.
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