Frequently Asked Questions
Answers were provided by the IAATO Administrative Director, Steve Wellmeier, in June 2011.
- How is Antarctica governed? Who is responsible for overseeing the tourism industry?
- What are the biggest challenges for tourism to Antarctica?
- What is IAATO's role in the region's tourism industry?
- What recent changes have been made to be made to protect the environment?
- What is the best way to experience Antarctica safely and responsibly?
- How does one actually get to Antarctica?
- Is it dangerous to visit Antarctica?
- Is the increase in Antarctic tourism a concern?
- Is global warming having any kind of impact on the Antarctic?
- What is your most memorable personal experience visiting the Antarctic and what kind of impact has it had on your life since then?
There is no formalized central government in Antarctica. Rather, it is managed through the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. Originally signed by 12 nations and now including 48, the treaty designates the entire continent as a "natural reserve devoted to peace and science". It specifically bans military use, disposing of radioactive waste materials, and any kind of nuclear testing. Under the treaty, tourism is considered to be a legitimate activity to Antarctica, and has been largely self-managed for the past 40 years.
The biggest challenge is balancing the interest of those who want to experience firsthand the beauty and unique wildlife of Antarctica with the obligation to preserve and protect it. Because any kind of human presence, noise or pollution has the potential to disturb the wildlife and the ecosystem, it is important to follow all of the precautions that have been set forth by the Antarctic Treaty System and by IAATO to limit the impact on the environment.
Our mission is to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private sector travel to the Antarctic. We have set forth the guidelines and protocols to ensure that travel to the region is safe and that all necessary precautions are taken to minimize the impact on the environment and wildlife. And, because our members all share this commitment to the region, we have been able to achieve this goal to a great degree. We think of it as self-regulation in many respects, but recognize the authority of the Antarctic Treaty Parties to regulate tourism in their official capacity. As a result, there has been virtually no discernable impact on the environment in the more than 40 years that organized commercial Antarctic tourism has taken place.
A good example is Measure 15, enacted in 2009 as part of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM XXXII, Baltimore). Once signed into domestic legislation by the Consultative Parties, Measure 15 will be a legally binding requirement that tour operators refrain from making any landings in Antarctica from vessels carrying more than 500 passengers. In addition, it requires that tour operators coordinate their itineraries so that no more than one vessel is at a landing site at any one time; that no more than 100 passengers are ashore at a landing site simultaneously; and that a ratio of one guide to 20 passengers is maintained while ashore. This measure codifies a requirement developed by IAATO and already followed by its members for more than a decade.
The best way to visit the region is to use one of our member tour operators as they will be able to best ensure that the precautions and protocols necessary to visit the area safely are being followed. This includes everything from how to approach and keep a safe distance from wildlife to the proper disposal of waste materials. In addition, our members have the experience needed and contingency plans in place to anticipate and respond to emergency situations, should they arise. IAATO now represents all SOLAS passenger vessels operating in Antarctic waters.
Tourism is and should continue to be a driving force in Antarctic conservation. Firsthand travel experiences foster education and a better understanding of the destination and the need for responsible tourism. Visitors to Antarctica — representing more than 100 different nationalities during the 2010-11 season alone — return home as ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship and peace.
Most travel is by sea on a cruise from ports such as Ushuaia, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile to the Antarctic Peninsula. Some travelers depart from Hobart, Tasmania or Bluff or Lyttleton, New Zealand, voyaging across the Ross Sea. There are other options by air to temporary land-based camps, but these tend to be limited and more expensive.
Not at all. The remote location, frozen landscape and unpredictable weather can make tourism operations in Antarctica a logistical challenge. That is why it is important to use an IAATO accredited tour operator, as they have the knowledge and expertise to make a visit to Antarctica the trip of a lifetime, while ensuring that all personal safety and environment precautions have been taken.
While there were sizable increases in the 1990s and first eight years of the 21st century, tourism to Antarctica has been flat the past few years. The worldwide downturn in the economy has largely been responsible for this, and this is affecting decisions both at the consumer level as well as the tour operator level. For example, some of the expedition vessels that were in the vanguard of Antarctic tourism 15-20 years ago are now being phased out of the industry, and financing new builds or even refurbishment of existing ships to Antarctic standards has not kept pace.
In addition, a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil came into effect August, 1 2011, and this has had a significant impact on the larger passenger vessels that conduct "cruise-only" type of voyages. These are aboard ships carrying more than 500 passengers, which aren't permitted to offer landings to their guests. This segment was responsible for more than 14,000 passengers during the 2010-11 season, or about 40% of the total number of Antarctic visitors. For the 2011-12 season — the first to be affected by the fuel ban — this number came in below 5,000 passengers. This number is expected to increase to around 9,900 for the 2012-13 season. Overall tourism for the 2012-13 season is projected to be about 34,950, which is still quite a bit below the high water mark of 46,265 visitors of the 2007-08 season.
Demand by travelers to see Antarctica will continue, and numbers will start to increase again at some point. When they do, concerns will reappear. In the meantime, IAATO is working to be "growth ready," with a Tourism Growth Management Working Group and a Five-Year Strategic Plan focusing on the possible implications. Many other areas are also being addressed by IAATO to alleviate concerns that naturally come with increased visitation: encouraging higher standards for field guides; audits and observation of Member operations; reviewing and updating site guidelines; and mandatory satellite tracking of all IAATO Member passenger vessels.
Global warming is a very real concern for the region because even a small shift in temperature can have an impact on the wildlife and ecosystems and their ability to survive and reproduce. The Antarctica Peninsula is particularly sensitive to climate change, and is a place where temperatures have increased by nearly three degrees Celsius in the past 50 years. That's nearly ten times that of other areas in the world. As a result, scientists are paying particularly close attention to changes in the region as they believe it will provide a marker for how climate change will affect the rest of the world as well.
Recognizing that climate change does pose a threat to the region and as part of our mission for environmentally responsible travel, we have formed a working group to look at the problem and how IAATO can take an active part in addressing its impact. IAATO is taking a proactive role in communicating this information to its members and their clients through the publication and distribution of Climate Change in Antarctic: Understanding the Facts. This informative brochure summarizes the Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment Report ACCE) published by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in 2009.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE VISITING THE ANTARCTIC AND WHAT KIND OF IMPACT HAS IT HAD ON YOUR LIFE SINCE THEN?
I was impressed with the range of nationalities and ages of my fellow guests, and how our common goal — besides the great appreciation for such a place — was the sense of shared responsibility we all have to keep it pristine and unspoiled for future generations. On a ship with less than 80 passengers, more than a dozen nationalities were represented, with ages ranging from about 12 to 80 years. This might have been unusual, but I'm not so sure. What struck me was the fact that cultural and age differences were set aside to a great extent, as everyone assumed the identity of an invited guest and "student" to a new and wonderful environment where there was much to absorb.