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Antarctic tourism: big business with eco-angle

Published time: May 20, 2011 07:23
Edited time: May 20, 2011 12:07

Though Antarctica lacks luxury resorts, it still attracts many people who are ready to spend thousands of dollars on a ten-day trip. RT’s team went to the Earth's southernmost continent to check why Antarctic tourism is flourishing.

The guests on board the National Geographic Explorer cruise ship get ready to come ashore to experience something magical.

“You can read books and watch TV shows, and try to be prepared, but the experience, every trip again – once we take people down here, they are blown away by the set-up of nature and landscape, and weather and whatever is out here in this environment,” said the Explorer’s Captain Oliver Kruess.  “It is a voyage beyond imagination.”

Tourism in Antarctica is a major business, but because of the Antarctic Treaty System, an international agreement that limits exploitation of the continent, do not expect to see luxury hotels down on the continent anytime soon.

Excursions are mainly limited to cruise ships and small charter flights from the tip of South America.

“We really come down here to see something unique. It is an ecosystem like no other,” said research biologist Ian Bullock. “Also, for the people who do come on these journeys, I think they get spellbound because, really, it is a vision of the world before man ever had anything to do with it.”

Onboard the National Geographic Explorer, passengers can truly get a unique one-on-one vantage point of the wildlife and scenery of Antarctica in a relatively safe environment. Still, one must keep in mind this is, in fact, Antarctica and it is far removed from the conveniences of civilization.

“Our stop today here to Maxwell Bay was not planned, but we developed a medical urgency last night and now we are appreciating the assistance of the Chileans that have an airfield here,” Kruess said. “Then the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has developed an evacuation scheme for such cases.”

Because of the intense logistics involved in operating in such remote environments, an Antarctic experience can be quite costly. 

An 11-night adventure on a cruise ship can cost anywhere between US$10,000 and $20,000, and a “Day in Antarctica” flight package from Punta Arenas, Chile, costs around US$5,000, but the people who make this journey say the experience is worth it.

“We just got back from being able to go to look at some penguins, look at some seals,” said Antarctica tourist Andrew Fem. “They do not have a real fear of humans that animals do in the most parts of  the world and, as you can see, there is a lot of stark natural beauty out here.”

“It is just interesting to see the colonies that have popped up in the middle of nowhere at the bottom of the Earth,” he added.  

Those that facilitate such trips say there is more to the Antarctic tourism industry than making a buck.

“It is not only an adventure for everybody, we are very careful in telling people that they should take something home that may change their life,” Kruess said.

“We are trying to be aware of how special this environment is and over global climate change in here, we are witnessing changes, we have been coming down here for 20 years, or even longer, and we see those changes,” he added.

Hopefully, Antarctic trips will help creating ambassadors that will spread the message about this unique and important part of the world.

­Read details of RT’s Antarctic adventures in Sean Thomas’s blog