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Crowd control: more people than ever are heading to Antarctica to get away from it all. But should they really be allowed to holiday on this pristine land? (Responsible Travel).

SITTING ON AN ICE BEACH, SURROUNDED by cold, blue 12-metre walls, I can hear the distant exhalation of a minke whale before it dives, and the slow, soft rumble of moving ice. Just ill front of me, young gentoo penguins are splashing in the shallows, floating on their backs and practising torpedo landings onto miniature ice floes. They've just grown their adult feathers and can't yet take off for the open sea.

This is my very first landing on Antarctic soil, at the achingly beautiful Neko Harbour, and though -- as instructed -- I leave nothing behind, I can't help wondering if I should even be here at all. I am one of an increasing number of privileged individuals, one of only 100,000 in the world so far, to visit Antarctica. The Earth's largest and driest continent is becoming a popular tourist destination and this is provoking a heated debate among the proponents of ecotourism.

The collapse of the Russian economy in the early 1990s has enabled Western tour operators to charter working Russian ships and crew to make expedition-style voyages for tourists with deep pockets. The number of visitors to Antarctica is steadily climbing, from 4,700 in 1992 to a record 14,700 in 2000. There are now more tourists visiting than scientists and support staff. How can this many people possibly not leave their mark as they trample around penguin rookeries and over moss-covered slopes, pointing cameras at nesting birds and `connecting' with the wildlife?

In an effort to promote and practice environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed in 1991. Currently there are 35 member organisations representing ten countries. IAATO provides voluntary guidelines for Antarctic visitors and non-governmental tour organisers, and aims to increase environmental awareness, promote tourist safety and establish a code of behaviour that minimises environmental impacts.

I am on a Russian icebreaker named the Kapitan Dranitsyn, chartered for the summer from Murmansk, in the Arctic Circle, by US company Quark Expeditions. Like most Antarctic cruises, we depart from a port town called Ushuaia, the world's southernmost capital city on the island Tierra del Fuego, surrounded by the last peaks of the Andes. Our ship is a rock-solid Russian workhorse with a crew of around 90, complete with formidable captain. It can accommodate 110 passengers, though luckily we have only 50 on our cruise.

We also have an expedition leader and assistant, and a team of Antarctic experts: an ornithologist, a geologist, a historian, a marine biologist, two naturalists (who are also Zodiac boat drivers), and a doctor. They provide daily lectures on Antarctic wildlife, history and geology and are always on hand to answer questions and guide us when ashore. My fellow passengers hail from all over the globe;, most are aged 45-plus, and all are well-travelled and well-heeled. Many have safaried in Africa, cruised the Galapagos, skied in Austria and now have the money, the time and the desire to do something different. The money is important; Antarctic cruises certainly don't come at backpacker prices.

We head off through the Beagle Channel and make for the notoriously rough Drake Passage that must be crossed to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, the destination of most Antarctic cruises, approximately 1,250 kilometres away. Like many, I make fast friends with the doctor and his supply of travel sickness pills.

As the ship rolls we sit in her lurching lecture theatre (the seats are firmly secured) for a talk on IAATO regulations. These include maintaining a five-metre distance from animals, no eating or smoking while ashore and a maximum of 100 people per landing.

In no time we become accustomed to scrubbing penguin guano off our boots after each landing (to avoid cross-colony contamination), and our bladders become used to a daily workout so we don't leave behind any biological waste. But of course, part of the joy of the Antarctic experience is that the charmingly fearless inhabitants have no concept of what five metres is. I discover this as a king penguin pecks inquisitively at my boots while I sit on the pebble beach at St Andrews Bay, home to a vast crowd of noisy birds that make up one of the last king penguin rookeries on the Subantarctic island of South Georgia.

I watch them thwack each other with flippers, and wonder at their apparently unique squawks that serve to reunite mates, parents and chicks among 200,000 neighbours. I even glimpse an egg snuggled under a fat white belly, balanced on top of webbed feet to keep it off the cold ground, and I delight at the saggy nappy bottoms of these lovely creatures as they march away with their distinctive, almost comical, waddle.

While I feel blessed to have seen fluffy brown chicks moulting their way to white adult plumes, and I was diligent in obeying all the rules (notwithstanding boot nibbling individuals), I wonder whether my presence endangered the very creatures I had come to admire. My worries were slightly allayed by our visit to Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, home to around 1,000 pairs of small gentoo penguins, who are unknowingly taking part in a scientific experiment to measure the effects of tourism.

Testing tourism's impact

Only vessels which are IAATO signatories are given permission to land here and visitors are allowed to wander freely over just half of the island; the other half is kept clear of tourists to monitor the effects. To date, research shows that the presence of well-behaved humans makes no difference to the breeding rate of the gentoos.

Jane Wilson is a marine biologist and environmental planning and communications expert, and was one of the expedition staff on our trip. She believes that ultimately tourism is the only path to protection in Antarctica and that, if carefully managed, the benefits will far outweigh the costs.

People's first-hand experience of Antarctica is usually quite powerful, because it is such a magnificent and remote place. The understanding and of the visitors is increased, and this is ultimately what will lead to the protection of Antarctica in the future," she says.

Wilson believes tourists and animals can co-exist. "My gut feeling is that the effects of tourism on animals in Antarctica will vary from species to species. For any environmental impact you must consider the cumulative effect, studying several generations, but I believe birds habituate and will generally breed successfully."

Boat-based benefits

The secret to the success of tourism in Antarctica, it seems, is to ensure that boat-based operations continue as the main mode of tourism. "One person as a tourist treads very lightly in Antarctica. Everything is on board: they go to the toilet on the ship; they eat their meals on the ship; it is all self-contained and all they do is step ashore," explains Wilson.

But our expedition ornithologist, Tony Marr, is worried about a different kind of tour operator cashing in. "Right now it's expensive to go to Antarctica and the companies involved are highly responsible. But cut-price tour operators could be tempted to come in and make a fast buck, and may start cutting corners, risking oil spills, turning a blind eye to regulations and not joining IAATO," he says.

For the time being it seems that the IAATO guidelines are working, but the consensus is that while they are followed with goodwill, with no penalties or sanctions made against anyone who breaks the rules, the situation needs to be monitored. There is also the question of ruining the isolation element integral to the Antarctic experience. With too many ships in the area one may some day sail through a beautiful channel to find a huge, floating gin palace around the bend. At the moment schedules are worked out to ensure this doesn't happen.

Attitudes also matter. Perhaps passengers on luxury liners filled with casinos are more interested in ticking another destination off their list than absorbing the wonderment of Antarctica and taking away a valuable message of preservation. Certainly everyone on our trip was left with a feeling of having been to a special place they want to stay that way. If issues appear in the press that represent a threat to Antarctica, one hopes people would be more likely to act if they've been there. Let's face it, the human race doesn't have a good track record in looking after the planet.

The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is testament to this. Previously the hub of the South Atlantic whaling industry, huge empty vats once filled with whale oil now stand as reminders of the thoughtlessness of our species. Yet Antarctica remains the most pristine region on our planet. Seemingly silent and unmoving, it teems with life. It is a precious jewel and it is up to us to keep it that way.

Keeping Antarctica on the ecotourism agenda

Ecotourism is: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people" The International Ecotourism Society.

The book Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, by Martha Honey, outlines seven points that define ecotourism. According to Honey, ecotourism:

* Involves travel to natural destinations. These are often remote and are usually under environmental protection at national, international, communal or private level

* Minimises impact. Ecotourism strives to minimise adverse affects of hotels, trails and other infrastructure and requires the numbers of tourists to be regulated to limit damage to the ecosystem

* Builds environmental awareness. Ecotourism means education, for both tourists and residents of nearby communities. Guides must be well trained, with skills in natural and cultural history, environmental interpretation and ethical principles

* Provides direct financial benefits for conservation. Ecotourism helps raise funds for environmental protection, research and education

* Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people. The local community must be involved with and receive tangible benefits from the conservation area

* Respects local culture. Ecotourism strives to be culturally respectful and have a minimal effect on the environment and people

* Supports human rights and democratic movements. Ecotourism demands a more holistic approach to travel, in which participants respect, learn about and benefit the local environment

* Strives to meet as many of these criteria as possible
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Author:Donelly, Joanne
Geographic Code:8ANTA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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