The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is preparing for the start of the Antarctic travel season following months of discussion and collaboration with Antarctic gateways.
The organisation, which turned 30 this year, held a meeting with members on Thursday (September 16) to discuss operations for the season ahead following recently released COVID-19 parameters for travel from Antarctic Gateways Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).
Gina Greer, IAATO Executive Director, said: “The past year-and-a-half has been challenging as we’ve learned more about COVID-19, and we and our members have constantly been re-evaluating the feasibility of a season. This has required a great deal of flexibility and agile working on behalf of our members and conversations are continuing as the season draws closer.”
The Association, which has more than 100 members worldwide, has been working diligently over the last 16 months to deliver keystone recommendations regarding COVID-19 protocols when Antarctic operations resume in late 2021. Much of this work has involved close collaboration with Antarctic gateway countries.
Some members have taken the difficult decision not to operate for the 2021/22 season, but for the majority, preparations are continuing.
One of IAATO’s strengths is the willingness of the membership to set competitive interests aside to come together to act for Antarctica by sharing best practice for safe and responsible operations. This approach resulted in the formation of IAATO’s COVID-19 Advisory Group (CAG) in June 2020.
The CAG has leveraged the strength, skills, and experience of IAATO’s existing committees and working groups, as well as the expertise of the secretariat, stakeholders, and worldwide industry standards to lead the organisation through the challenges and complexities of the pandemic.
As the traditional start of the Antarctic season draws closer, the CAG, has continued to closely monitor global developments as restrictions on travel begin to ease, communicating with Antarctic Gateway countries and other polar stakeholders as governments release their policies and protocols, sharing regular updates with the wider membership.
Over the last two months gateway governments released initial guidance. Operators have raised questions about the feasibility of some requirements given the diverse nature of the IAATO membership, which ranges from yachts carrying no more than 12 people to large cruise vessels.
Greer added: “Our work with the Antarctic Gateway authorities is a critical part of pre-season preparations, and it is important to IAATO and its members that the diversity of the IAATO membership is reflected within gateways’ COVID-19 protocols so that they can be applied to all responsible tourism providers.
“It’s been encouraging to see the recent guidance from Argentina and Chile relating to Antarctic tourism, but the reality is that it will be challenging for some operators to implement. There are still a lot of questions and we’re working through them with the Gateway authorities.”
IAATO’s usual pre-season preparations continue. IAATO operators must operate under a permit or authorization from an Antarctic Treaty Party or relevant government, submitting their Advance Notification and Environmental Impact Assessment to IAATO ahead of the Antarctic season.
While the impact of the pandemic has created challenges for the association and its members, IAATO’s mission of advocating and promoting the practice of safe and environmentally responsible Antarctic tourism endures. IAATO Committee and Working Group efforts throughout the last year have supported the organization in honing its policies and strategies to protect Antarctica while enabling Antarctic travellers to have a safe, enriching, educational experience.