Antarctica: Growing visitor numbers, growing ecological concerns

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GERLACHE STRAIT, Antarctica -- The naturalist guide on the Explorer II grimaced as she recalled the time a married couple had approached her and proudly proclaimed that they could now boast, We had sex on seven continents! She had found their attitude callously inappropriate, a rude exception to the almost universal reverence inspired by the majestic mountain peaks and crystalline icebergs that form this corner of Antarctica. Though unique in her experience, it accelerated her sense of foreboding about how things had changed in the decade she had been leading travelers to this pristine continent at the bottom of the planet.

Ten years ago, the ones who came here were people who were passionate about Antarctica, she said. They were people who had spent their whole lives wanting to come here. Now, its so easy to come. For some people its like buying a Louis Vuitton bag.

The guide, who preferred not to be identified, is part of a small community of passionate enthusiasts who have dedicated large chunks of their lives to revealing a frontier largely untarnished by the actions and detritus of humans. But they share concerns about the growth of visitor numbers and the sustainability of tourism in such a delicate environment.

For the majority of travelers, Antarctica remains the trip of a lifetime. Though the regulars report an increased presence of continent collectors and status travelers who wear destinations like charms on a gaudy bracelet, tourism in Antarctica is still conducted in a way that is considered by many to be the most environmentally sensitive in the world.

Yet, paradoxically, the regulations that control human activity here are enacted and enforced not by any government or international body but by an association of tour operators.

Visitor numbers rising

Antarctic tourism is booming.

Our cruises totally sold out this year, said Pamela Lassers, Abercrombie & Kents director of media relations. Participants in an Abercrombie & Kent tour traverse Antarctic waters in a Zodiac. TW.com photo by David CogswellYou have to book by the end of March to get a place.

"Significantly, the first to sell out was our family cruise during the Christmas and New Year period. We had 42 people under 18. Were getting a lot of three-generation family groups, grandparents and grandchildren.

The National Science Foundation reports that in the austral summer season of 1992-1993, the first season for which it has data, 6,704 tourists visited Antarctica. The numbers have grown incrementally but steadily. In the current season, 27,663 tourists are expected to set foot on the continent, quadruple the number just 13 years ago. A few thousand more will sail by on large cruise ships without disembarking.

Twelve ships brought passengers here in the 1992-1993 winter season; that has grown to 52 ships. Of that number, 36 are commercially operated; the rest are yachts carrying 12 or fewer passengers. Some of the increase can be accounted for by improved access to data, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. But there is no doubt the actual number is growing.

In recent years, major cruise lines such as Holland America, Crystal and Princess have started bringing ships with more than 500 cruisers. IAATO guidelines forbid ships that large from disembarking passengers.

To put the numbers into perspective, fewer than 200,000 tourists have set foot on Antarctica. The total number of visitors since 1992 would be comparable to about the number of people who visit New York in two days.

Antarctica is a big place, said Tom Ritchie, expedition leader for Lindblad Expeditions, but there are relatively few sites where people can land. But if you look at Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain National Park, how many millions visit every year? When you put it in a perspective like that, hopefully it can be managed.

Damage control

The scientists and tourism workers who essentially comprise the Antarctic community tend to feel ambivalent about tourism. On the positive side, more tourism means more awareness. Our job is to turn you all into ambassadors for Antarctica, A&K naturalist guide Russ Manning told his group.

But there is also a lurking apprehension that too many tourists might destroy what the community loves so much about this frozen world.

Giovanni Biassuti, staff captain of the Explorer II, the ship A&K sails to Antarctica, articulated a sentiment shared by most of the industry.

I just hope humans dont destroy it, he said. Im not a Greenpeace person or anything, but it just makes sense. Its my livelihood. If there are no penguins, there wont be any reason for people to go, and I wont have a way to make a living.

Tour operators love to promote pristine destinations. The paradox, of course, is that the more successful their promotions, the less pristine a destination is likely to become.

The motto is Take only pictures and leave only a footprint, said A&K expedition leader Ignacio Rojas. But if youre on a moth bed, footprints are already damaging enough. The numbers are a question. The more you have, the more can happen. The less experienced the people, the more danger.

Jim McClintock, a scientist, has done much research at Palmer Station in Antarctica. He took his first tourism trip as a lecturer aboard a ship in January and found himself pleasantly surprised by the experience. But he has concerns.

As a scientist whos been coming down here for 20-odd years, I have to admit that if the rate of growth continues as it has, especially with this retirement boom coming -- with the baby boomers, people who have the resources to travel and the interest and the education -- there are going to have to be some decisions made about regulating the numbers of visitors. I dont know how youd do that.

McClintock said he has not seen any sign of environmental damage so far. Id always had a curiosity about tourism, he said. Id seen it grow substantially and talked to other researchers who were curious. Ive been very pleased with what has happened on this cruise. Its very well organized, very low impact.

McClintock said he was also impressed with IAATO.

Theyre concerned with environmental impact, releasing garbage from the ship, oil and gas pollutants, the impact on the behavior of the wildlife, he said. I think the organization has done a pretty good job of educating tour guides about how to deal with the wildlife. They have a pretty conservative approach to how many people can be on shore at a time. I spent 10 days on a ship with 175 people, and I didnt see any evidence of environmental damage.

Some operators suggest that sending people to Antarctica could help the global environment more than it hurts.

It does happen that people change their point of view on the environment when they go there, said George Morgan-Grenville, A&K president. If you have the right staff, they can give you a good picture of global warming and so forth. Once you have that information, you kind of have to do something about it.

A&Ks Lassers said, Its the experience of the place that makes us want to preserve it for others to enjoy. Its what weve seen in Africa and other places we operate.

Self-governing body

IAATO was founded in 1991 by seven operators as a self-governing body. In the absence of any official regulatory authority, its mission was to protect the Antarctic environment and lay down guidelines for sustainable tourism. The association drew up regulations for limiting impact and created systems for coordinating visits and keeping operators from stepping on each others toes.

IAATOs executive director, Denise Landau, credits her organization with tourisms low impact on Antarctica. We have really sophisticated systems in place, she said.

IAATO regulates the pattern and frequency of visits and dictates wildlife-watching guidelines and landing procedures for more than 200 sites on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Members register proposed itineraries on IAATOs Web site. The association reviews the itineraries and coordinates them, mandating changes where necessary to avoid conflicts or overlaps.

IAATO guidelines require that only one ship be present at any site at a time. No more than 100 tourists may be onshore at any site simultaneously. There must be one expedition leader for every 20 tourists. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to disembark and are limited to cruising by. Vessels carrying 200 to 500 passengers can land but only at certain sites.

We make changes every single year, Landau said. We adapt to the changing industry.

Landau disputes the notion that tourists goals are less nobler now than before. We always had that whole range going to Antarctica since my first trip down there in 1991, she said. There were continent collectors. In 1988 there were people going for the same reason.

Nonmember operators

Although more than 95% of travel to Antarctica is through IAATO members -- and although the Antarctic Treaty nations have adopted IAATOs guidelines -- some operators choose not to be members. Among them are Orient Lines, which operates the Marco Polo, and Discovery World Cruises, which operates the Discovery.

Mark Flager, Discovery World Cruises vice president of sales and marketing, said the line does not belong to the organization because of a disagreement over the maximum passenger number for ships allowed to do landings.

Our ship can carry 650, he said. We cap it at 550.

IAATOs maximum is 500 passengers.

Weve adhered to every bylaw, with one exception: the size of the ship, said Flager, who described the limit as somewhat arbitrary.

It was 400. Then they made it 500, he said. Our cruises are budgeted to make a certain amount of money based on 550. 

In a statement, Orient Lines parent company NCL Corp. said its environmental policies and technologies are among the most stringent in the industry and exceed existing laws and conventions.

Like all cruise lines, NCL must meet the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as all other marine regulations to sail in Antarctic waters. 

A history of stewardship

Lars Eric Lindblad is universally recognized as the father of Antarctic tourism. Until the 1960s, the only people to visit Antarctica were explorers and scientists. Lindblad saw potential and acted on it, Neko Harbor, on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. TW.com photo by David Cogswellcreating the model of Antarctic tourism that most operators still follow today, including hosting small groups and using Zodiac landing vessels, educational programs and specialist guides.

With rare exceptions, tourists land only on the Antarctic Peninsula, north of the Antarctic Circle, where wildlife is abundant and austral summers are mild. The trips embark at Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina and head 600 miles across the Drake Passage to the peninsula.

Lindblad took his first group to Antarctica in 1966 using a chartered Argentine naval vessel. Later, he chartered a Chilean ship, and in the 1970s he built the Lindblad Explorer, a ship with an ice-strengthened hull specially designed for Antarctica. 

In the late 1970s a second operator, Society Expeditions, started sailing the World Discoverer to Antarctica, and in the 1980s several other operators joined in.

A family legacy

Lars Lindblads son, Sven Olof Lindblad, whose tour company has been going to Antarctica since 1999, worries about his fathers legacy.

Theres no question that tourism to Antarctica has exploded, he said. And now with the bigger ships -- I call them the factory ships -- we are seeing the commoditization of it. There are a lot of good operators who want to make sure they dont do any damage to Antarctica. Then we get these people who are not inherently bad people, they just dont have a clue.

Lindblad said he is concerned about the types of regulations that might have to be put into effect if a few careless operators ruin it for the rest.

Its one continent where Im going to fight like a banshee, he said. Ive had it with rules based on the lowest common denominator, based on the fact that there are a lot of people going down there who dont know what they are doing.

Lindblad voted against admitting the large cruise lines into IAATO but was overruled. He said he was concerned that an organization that started as a body of people acting ultimately out of self-interest to get something of collective value would evolve if it gets permeated by a bunch of big-ship operators.

Yet Lindblad acknowledges that no one owns Antarctica, and no one can prohibit anyone else from going there.

The reasoning behind bringing the cruise lines into the association, he said, was simple: Its better to have them involved. Then you can control them better.

But after observing the results, he says the original rationale has been invalidated.

IAATOs Landau strongly disagrees.

Holland America has been amazing, she said. Theyve done a great job setting high standards. They made a conscious decision not to land their people, and for us that is fantastic. Thats why were grateful to have that diversity. 

Reasonable people can disagree, Lindblad acknowledged. And while he realizes his attitude might be interpreted as elitist or selfish, he insists that he doesnt want to be looking at cruise ships on the horizon in Antarctica.

The quality you can offer is threatened when it is commoditized, Lindblad said. Antarctica is also symbolic of one of the last great places on the planet where you can go spend time and not see the effects of mankind all around you. 

He cited an incident last year during which employees of Celebrity Xpeditions were caught shark fishing illegally just off the Galapagos as an example of a culture clash between cruise lines and expedition operators. Celebrity dismissed the employees and implemented new security and training practices.

A major accident or serious environmental breech, Lindblad warns, would likely result in serious regulations that are going to be detrimental to providing people a great experience.

Lindblad suggests that newcomers be subjected to tight regulations that would later be eased.

At some point, if you demonstrate that youve accumulated a certain degree of experience, you can join the rest of the crowd and live in a world of intelligent self-regulation, he said.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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