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There was a significant rise in Antarctic tourist numbers during the 2003-04 austral summer season, according to data presented at the 2004 International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) Annual General Meeting. IAATO was founded by seven companies in 1991 to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. By 2004 IAATO had grown to include 70 member companies from 14 countries (IAATO 2004).

Antarctic tourism is generally considered to have begun in the late 1950s, and there have been tourist expeditions every year since 1966. They are carried out primarily by around 20 ice-strengthened ships carrying 45 to 280 passengers each. Most of the visits are to the Antarctic Peninsula region. Tourist numbers rose from 6 704 in 1992-93 to 13 571 in 2002-03, but then surged to 19 722 in 2003-04 (Figure 2) (IAATO 2004).

Figure 2: 1992-2005 Antarctic tourist trends

Source: IAATO 2004

Private sector tourism still accounts for a relatively small portion of human activity on the continent, but the sharp rise in visitor numbers is alarming for three reasons.

First, the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty requires impact assessment and monitoring of all human activity in the Antarctic region. Both governmental and non-governmental organizations such as IAATO provide impact assessments to their government authorities. However, the Environmental Protocol does not provide an easy mechanism to manage cumulative impacts across the number of countries operating in the region. Thus, accurate monitoring and environmental impact assessment are problematic.

Second, there is a risk that alien species will be introduced into the pristine Antarctic environment, especially in the biodiverse regions of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Peninsula. Tourism operators and government programmes alike take precautions to prevent such events from occurring, but any increase in human activity in the region has the potential to increase the danger. An Annex to the Environmental Protocol for liability for damage to the Antarctic environment has yet to be successfully negotiated by Antarctic Treaty parties.

Finally, there are concerns that any increase in Antarctic tourism may lead to greater risks of accident and emergency. Currently there are no adequate emergency response capabilities for the entire region.

An accreditation scheme for Antarctic tourism operators has been proposed within the Antarctic Treaty System. While there was no formal decision as to who would develop and coordinate such a scheme, at the 2004 IAATO AGM, member companies agreed to move ahead themselves with the development of a formal Accreditation Scheme and Audit Procedure (ATCM 2004b). This would formalize IAATO's guidelines and operational standards, and establish mechanisms to audit compliance with them.

Box 2: First Antarctic Specially Managed Area approved

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, often referred to as the Environmental Protocol (or Madrid Protocol), came into force in January 1998. This Protocol allows for the creation of Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMA) under its Annex V which came into force in May 2002. In 2004, at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting XXVII in Cape Town, South Africa, a vast tract of land called the Dry Valleys became the first ASMA after approval by the 27 consultative state parties to the treaty of a joint proposal presented by New Zealand and the United States.

The Dry Valleys area covers approximately 15 000 km2 and contains the largest expanse of ice-free ground in Antarctica. It is a cold desert environment which encompasses soils millions of years old, communities of unique plants and micro-organisms and special geological features that have remained relatively pristine because of their remoteness. This area is particularly sensitive to human disturbance, and has extremely slow recovery rates. For example human footprints made in the 1950s in areas of low wind disturbance are still clearly visible today.

The ASMA plan will ensure that the scientific, wilderness, ecological and aesthetic values of the Dry Valleys are protected and that cumulative impacts including tourism are minimized by managing all human activities in the ASMA.


Source: Committee for Environmental Protection 2004

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