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New regulations for Antarctic tourism.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a member organisation founded in 1991 to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. Executive director STEVE WELLMEIER spoke to LIZ O'REILLY about falling visitor numbers and international regulations to protect this fragile ecosystem.

How many members does the IAATO currently have and where do they come from? IAATO has about 110 members and they represent all parts of the globe, from the Falklands/Malvinas to Tasmania, Nova Scotia to Cape Town, and all points in between. Of the members, about 50 are operators and/or organisers of tours to Antarctica. These are the members that actually operate the tours, own or charter vessels, secure the necessary permits and authorisations, hire expedition staff and guides and so forth. The remaining members are associates who support the mission of IAATO.

Are there also operators coming into the region who are not members and are they regulated at all? For the past two seasons, all SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) vessel operators conducting tourism activities in Antarctica have belonged to IAATO, so we are fairly confident that we have a good handle on about 99 per cent of Antarctic tourism. When you talk about regulation, you should consider that all of the SOLAS vessels travelling to Antarctica are responsible for following all IMO (International Maritime Organisation) mandates and guidelines, as well as undergoing flag and port-state inspections, proper certification protocols, etc. So, there is a high degree of regulation already built into the system.

I didn't mention the air/land-based operators. Currently, there are two companies that conduct Antarctic tourism business in this manner and they both belong to IAATO.

How many tourists are currently coming into the Antarctic each year and where are they coming from? Because of the current slump in the economy, visitation to the Antarctic has dropped in the past few years. From a high of 47,225 during the 2006-07 season, this number fell to 37,858 last season and appears to be even lower this current season at around 35,200. We expect to see this stay flat next year as well and then we will see a further drop-off.

Why the drop-off? During 2009, the IMO approved an amendment to MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) banning the use and carriage of heavy and intermediate fuel oils for all shipping in the Antarctic Treaty Area. The ban will primarily affect the large passenger vessels that operate what we call 'cruise-only' type tourism -- they carry more than 500 passengers and don't offer landings in Antarctica.

Consequently, we expect overall tourism numbers for the 2011-12 austral summer to be about 26,775, with the difference largely attributed to large passenger ships leaving the Antarctic market.

Where are the visitors coming from? Mostly from the US, which represented about 34 per cent of all tourists during the 2008-09 season. The UK was next with 14.6 per cent, followed by Germany (10.2 per cent), Australia (8 per cent), Canada (6.2 per cent), The Netherlands (3.7 per cent) and Switzerland (3.1 per cent). Rounding out the top ten is New Zealand with 1.2 per cent.

Has this number shown a marked increase since the area started to get a lot of publicity? Overall visitation has trended up the past two decades, no question about it, but the big jumps came about around 10 years ago when large vessel operators entered the market. As I mentioned, these ships offer a 'cruise-only' experience, with no actual landings take place. In order to do landings, a ship must carry 500 or fewer passengers. This has been an IAATO bylaw for the better part of 10 years, but it was recently adopted by the Antarctic Treaty System as a binding measure. I might add that the large vessel operators follow the same guidelines, rules and procedures as the smaller ships and yachts and are very responsible regarding their safety and environmental responsibilities while in Antarctic waters.

How, if at all, is the increasing number affecting the operators' ability to protect the region? While an increased number of vessels in the area of the Antarctic Peninsula rightly raises questions of safety and environmental protection, the flip side is that multiple ships within a few hours of each other strengthen contingency planning and rescue options. For example, IAATO actively participated in an international search and rescue conference in Buenos Aires. There was acknowledgement at the conference that passenger vessels are an important search and rescue asset, not just a potential liability.

In terms of protecting the region on a broader scale, there is considerable activity currently underway at IMO, which has been tasked with taking the current Polar Shipping Guidelines and redrafting them as a Mandatory Polar Code. There is a lot of support for this from the Antarctic Treaty parties and IAATO certainly supports the development of this code as well.

What are the best times to visit and what can visitors expect to see and do? The primary season for visiting Antarctica is the austral summer, from November into mid-March. Visitors who are particularly interested in seeing penguin chicks generally wait until January and February, which are the prime months for this. But early season also has its advantages, with the landscape pristine and snow covering most everything; you feel as if you are discovering a place for the first time! Later in the season finds more whale activity. The primary activity is going ashore, typically aboard Zodiac-type inflatable boats with guides and ship staff for hikes to penguin colonies, seals and sea lions. There are also a number of historic huts and scientific bases that welcome visitors.

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Publication:Travel & Tourism News
Date:May 1, 2010
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