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.
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.