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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 17:34 GMT
Concern over Antarctic cruise ships
View (BBC)
The number of tourists visiting Antarctica has trebled
By Christine McGourty, BBC science correspondent, in Antarctica

Britain is leading an effort to introduce a new "Antarctic Code" for shipping in the Southern Ocean.

It aims to reduce the likelihood of a potentially devastating accident as a result of the increasing number of ships sailing around Antarctica.

Tourists now substantially out-number scientists and support staff on the continent

Scott Altman, Antarctica Project
Tourism is flourishing on the continent and the trend is towards the use of larger cruise ships.

These are not specifically designed to sail in polar conditions and are more difficult to manoeuvre in ice than smaller ships.

There is also concern about the impact of the increasing number of visitors - more than 1,000 on the larger ships, compared with about 100 on the smaller ones.

Mass tourism

The number of tourists visiting the continent has more than trebled in the last decade, from about 4,000 to 14,000, according to Scott Altman of the Antarctica Project.

The organisation is campaigning for higher environmental standards on the continent and represents 230 non-governmental groups with an interest in Antarctica.

Iceberg (BBC)
Larger cruise ships have more trouble avoiding icebergs
He said the numbers were forecast to rise to almost 30,000 by the year 2005.

"Tourists now substantially out-number scientists and support staff on the continent," he said.

"There's increasing interest in mass-market tourism with more air links and possibly even infrastructure development ashore.

"We're also seeing more and more adventure tourism. There's jet-skiing, iceberg-climbing, marathons, even surfing. It will push tourism into more and more pristine areas.

"We do not want to see areas around Antarctica becoming like parts of Mount Everest, with waste lying around every corner," he added.

Any human presence down there - whether a ship or a human - is going to have some sort of impact

Denise Landau, IAATO
There are strict regulations governing tourism in Antarctica - for example, no more than 100 visitors can be landed at one time. But this can mean that larger ships simply land batches of people in rotation over the course of a day.

Denise Landau, executive secretary of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), denied that the industry was growing exponentially.

"It's been growing gradually, certainly not so fast that it's alarming," she said.

She said it just seemed that numbers were growing rapidly, because of changes in the way that IAATO was compiling the figures.

Oil spill fears

She admitted that the trend was towards larger ships, but said that was not necessarily a bad thing as not all were landing passengers on the continent.

"Any human presence down there - whether a ship or a human - is going to have some sort of impact, the question is whether it's significant," she said. "We're putting a lot of effort into assessing that at the moment."

Passengers (BBC)
No more than 100 passengers can be landed at one time
She said that on the Antarctic Peninsula, the part of the continent most visited by tourists, there was very little sign of the impact of humans.

That view is supported by some research. Bernard Stonehouse of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, has been leading a group looking at the impact of tourism on Antarctica for the last 12 years.

He said: "Although there's a lot of apprehension about what tourists might be doing, we found very, very little evidence of anything that's positively detrimental to the environment."

The greatest fear is of a shipping disaster that would result in a devastating oil spill. The British Government is leading discussions on how to improve marine regulations in the Southern Ocean.

The code would include new standards for the design and operation of vessels, covering such things as the type of fuel used and the minimum amount of experience that the crew must have in Antarctic waters. But it could be many years before such a code is accepted and implemented internationally.

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"Tourism is flourishing in Antarctica"
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