Antarctic tourism in the 2016-2017 season

By Midge Raymond,

The International Association of Antarctic Tour operators (IAATO) has released its data for the last Antarctic travel season, and the numbers are what most expected — which is still to say they are quite staggering, when you think about the sheer number of visitors to this fragile and isolated place.

The total number of visitors reached 44,367 in 2016-2017, an increase of 15% over the previous season, and IAATO’s estimate for next season, 2017-2018, increases by another 5% to 46,385. If Antarctica sees this number next season, it will pass the largest number of visitors the continent has ever seen (which was 46,265, reported by IAATO in 2007-2008).

A few other tidbits: Americans still represent the largest number of Antarctic tourists, with the Chinese in second place. Australian, German, and British travelers represent the third, fourth, and fifth highest numbers, respectively.

The good news is that 98% of travelers take ships from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the majority of these vessels  carry fewer than 500 passengers. As many familiar with the Antarctic know — including readers of My Last Continent! — it’s the gigantic ships carrying thousands of passengers that are most at risk in the Southern Ocean. Fortunately, as IAATO reports, this type of “cruise-only” tourism (i.e., larger vessels with more than 500 passengers who do not go ashore), declined by 8%.

IAATO is a force for good in Antarctica, and I’m so glad the organization not only tracks such numbers but that it works so hard to keep tourism safe and sustainable, even as the desire to see Antarctica keeps growing. As Bob Simpson, Chair of IAATO’s Executive Committee, says, “Visiting Antarctica is a great privilege for anyone. Our goal is to provide our guests with a safe, enriching experience while leaving no discernible evidence of our visit.” This will be ever more important in the years to come.

 



Tourism in Antarctica: How many visitors are too many?

By Midge Raymond,

With the Antarctic travel season upon us — the austral summer, from November to February, is the only time the sea ice allows tourist vessel access — the increasing numbers of travelers to this region raise many questions. How many tourists are too many before the region is compromised?

Antarctic tourism began in 1966 with fifty-seven travelers. Now, upwards of 40,000 tourists visit the continent every year. Most tourism is, in fact, concentrated in a two-square-kilometer region on the Antarctic peninsula — which means a lot of feet on the ground for such a fragile environment.

And Antarctic tourism shows no signs of slowing down — quite the opposite, in fact. Beginning in 2018, Argentina will offer commercial flights to Antarctica. And while the U.S. and Australia comprise the majority of Antarctic visitors, Chinese tourists are now visiting Antarctica in large and growing numbers.

Most travelers to Antarctica travel by ship, and thanks to IAATO (the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators), tourism in Antarctica is well managed — for now. But tour operators are clearly adapting to the demands of travelers and will likely continue to do so. IAATO expects the number of visitors to jump 14 percent this season, with increasing numbers of landings on the islands; last year, cruises that included landings increased by more than 10 percent.

With IAATO being a voluntary membership organization, there is reason for concern — Antarctic tourism needs to be managed well, and already Antarctic treaty members have raised concerns and called for more regulation. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division announced that Princess Cruise Lines will plead guilty to deliberately dumping oil-contaminated waste into the ocean and covering it up in incidents dating back to  2005, resulting in seven felony charges and a $40 million penalty, the biggest fine yet in the history of criminal cases involving vessel pollution. While these ships were not in Antarctica, this is alarming given the increase and expansion of ship travel, as Reuters notes: “Cruise ship travel has generated concern among environmental groups and governments over water contamination and waste as the industry adds passengers, routes and larger ships.”

I’m often asked how many times I’ve been to Antarctica (once) and for how long (less than two weeks) and whether I will ever return. Even though it’s my favorite landscape on earth, I’m not sure I belong there, especially having already had the privilege of going once. In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop asks: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” When it comes to Antarctica, I lean toward yes.

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The latest on Antarctic tourism

By Midge Raymond,

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary membership organization founded in 1991 to help Antarctic tourism keep up the standards of the Antarctic Treaty, that is: to protect the environment and to keep developing guidelines to continue to preserve and protect the continent.

iaato

Recently, IAATO released its latest tourism numbers, and I always find it interesting to gauge the activity in this part of the world. The total numbers of visitors traveling to Antarctica (with IAATO members) was 36,702. This is 2 percent less than the previous season; the highest recorded number of tourists visiting the continent was 46,265 during the 2007-2008 season.

IAATO also estimated the numbers of visitors expected next season, 2015-2016, and this edges closer to that high number: 40,029. The organization expects this increase to be among those smaller cruise ships that do landings, which means safer travel yet more feet on the ground in Antarctica.

This past season, 73 percent of Antarctic visitors traveled on small ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers — yet it’s the 26 percent of visitors who cruise through on larger ships without making landings that can be even more dangerous. These ships often carry thousands of passengers, and when you get into trouble that far south, rescues are challenging.

In 2007, a Canadian ship struck underwater ice in the waters off the Antarctic peninsula and sank within 15 hours. Fortunately, the ship had only 91 passengers, all of whom got into lifeboats and received help from a Norwegian ship that was nearby. In addition, the weather was good, around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (fairly balmy for Antarctica) and calm. But what if there had been hundreds more passengers, or if the weather had turned, or if no other ships were close by?

This is one of the questions that MY LAST CONTINENT tackles.

Traveling to Antarctica comes with inherent risk — it is, by nature, a wild and unpredictable place — and IAATO continues to keep the safety and environmental standards as high as possible. By now, most ships that travel to Antarctica are IAATO members, which wasn’t always the case. But with tens of thousands of tourists visiting annually, and this number only increasing, the continent is bound to be affected. My hope is that visitors return with a new respect for the planet and for all that we need to do to keep it healthy, and to keep Antarctica icy.

Of course, many believe we shouldn’t visit at all … like John Oliver, who has created a hilarious (anti) travel campaign for the white continent.