A couple of decades back, Antarctica, the white continent that remains frozen throughout the year with temperatures as low as -94 degrees Celsius, was the destination of scientists alone. Nobody else had any interest in visiting the hostile land that was akin to some inhospitable planet. The harsh climatic conditions, perpetual snow-covered terrain that does not allow any vegetation and difficulty in accessing the mainland make Antarctica seem like a far cry from an ideal vacation spot. Today, almost 40,000 tourists visit the continent every year, the maximum number allowed as per regulations. In 1991, seeing tourist interest in the region, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed by companies that operate directly in Antarctica and others from various countries with an interest in supporting sustainable Antarctic tourism. These companies joined hands to advocate and promote the practice of environmentally responsible travel.
The organisation registers the most number of visitors from the United States of America, which contributes as much as 33% to the continent’s tourism annually, closely followed by China, Australia and Germany at 12%, 10% and 9%, respectively. Ship lines like Princess and Holland America brought travelling to Antarctica into the mainstream over a decade ago by adding it to their itineraries. The result was that the frozen continent found itself on the bucket list of many travellers. Gradually, small ship expeditions came to dominate tourism in the region due to travel restrictions on the numbers of passengers onboard. Multinational companies such as Lindblad, Ponant, Silversea, Seabourn, Lindblad, Hurtigruten and Quark, among others, started conducting annual trips because of the growing demand.
The unique appeal of the land has also brought the likes of Anthony Bourdain to its shores, who visited Antarctica recently for his show, Parts Unknown. Produced by CNN, the show uncovers lesser-known places and explores different cultures and cuisines. His onscreen adventures in the continent include a helicopter ride over an active volcano, a beach party at the foot of a glacier and an afternoon spent among a colony of penguins. Not to be left behind, an Indian luxury travel company, The Q Experiences, is jumping onto the bandwagon as well, attempting to take 200 Indians to Antarctica in December. Speaking with reporters in New Delhi, company founder Vasim Shaikh said, “I have been staring at the world map all my life and it is my dream to take Indians to Antarctica.”
Having visited the continent for a recce in January this year, he realised the untapped potential of the place as a tourist destination for Indians, because as per latest data released by the IAATO, the number of Indians visiting the area do not even come close to the numbers of the top 10 countries touring the cold continent. The 11-day polar excursion will have almost 400 passengers onboard on a 460-feet yacht, named The Great Majestic Explorer, having 132 rooms. Half of the passengers would comprise staff and crew, and the rest tourists. The journey will begin on December 9 from Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, on a green ship that uses marine diesel oil to fuel its engines.
The cruise, that has been cleared for travel by the IAATO, will then cross the Drake Passage, the body of water that is the shortest crossing between South America’s Cape Horn and Antarctica, to finally reach its destination. Once the cruise touches base, any passenger who ventures out during the two daily stops will have to undergo a mandatory procedure to ensure that no pollutant is introduced into the environment. This will be in line with the strict landing guidelines laid out for the continent. “Each and everything that is taken off-board will be thoroughly vacuumed and cleaned,” assures Shaikh, adding that even the snow boots provided to passengers will be washed before and after landing.
The Explorer, custom-made for such polar excursions around four years ago, has provisions for waste management as well, so that nothing is disposed of on the continent. In fact, Shaikh claims to have refused permission for fishing or kayaking during the journey to ensure that no part of the wildlife is at risk during the breeding season. Not only has the firm employed Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochchar for food and beverage services onboard, it has also recruited a group of naturalists and experts, who will assist tourists during off-board excursions to ensure that they are under the supervision of experts and do not disturb Antarctica’s vulnerable ecosystem.
Over the past 50 years, the west coast of the Antarctic peninsula has become one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet, restricted not only to the land, but also in the Southern Ocean. It has now been established by scientists that warming of the Antarctic peninsula is causing changes to the physical and living environments of Antarctica. A latest study by researchers, including those from the University of Queensland in Australia, investigating how ice-free areas in Antarctica may be affected by climate change, found that ice-free areas might increase in Antarctica by 25% due to climate change, leading to drastic changes in the continent’s biodiversity.
These concerns make it essential to consider issues that crop up because of the presence of tourists in such large numbers. The first of which is the limited tourist season that coincides with the breeding season for most Antarctic wildlife, as both take place during the summer months in the Southern Hemisphere. There are many records of birds that previously nested around the Antarctic bases no longer doing so due to the constant activity around such places. Another pressing concern is introducing insects or seeds from boots, clothes or food by accident.