Antarctic tourism to get safer, more environmentally friendly

The 20th Annual Meeting of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was held last month, with marine safety and the impact of travel on the Antarctic environment being the main topics of discussion. Attending members adopted measures that will hopefully ensure that travel to the region becomes safer, while also forming a working group to study ways to reduce the carbon footprint of tourism on the fragile ecosystem there.

Over the past couple of years there have been several high profile incidences involving Antarctic cruise ships, including the sinking of the MS Explorer back in 2007, and two ships running aground in December 2008 and again in February of this year. In response to these accidents, the IAATO passed a series of actions to enhance marine safety. The changes include mandatory participation in a satellite tracking program for all IAATO members, the conversion of all open lifeboats to partially or fully closed boats, and a new rule that stipulates that all ships sailing below 60º South have “a captain or appointed ice pilot with Antarctic experience.” The final new rule is in direct response to an investigation earlier this year that found that the inexperience of the captain directly played a role in the sinking of the Explorer. In the report that the IAATO released on the conference they indicated that G.A.P. Adventures, the company that held the charter for the Explorer, acknowedged the negative impact that the sinking of the ship had on the entire Antarctic tourism industry, and they encouraged the changes to restore confidence with travelers.The more than 100 IAATO members, from 14 countries, that attending the meeting also acknolwedged that global climate change was the greatest threat to the Antarctic continent, which led to the forming of the working group to explore more options for sustainable travel to the region. The new group intends to find ways to raise awareness of the threats to the frozen continent, as well as explore options for reducing the carbon footprint of travel to the area.

Personally, I think that the measures adopted are good steps for the Antarctic tourism industry. Clearly there are safety concerns, and it seems that operators have been playing with fire, especially since no one has been seriously hurt or died from the accidents that have occured there in the past few years. The changes are not likely to prevent further incidences however, but they may help to ensure that passengers continue to be safe and that they can be located more quickly by rescue crews, should the need arise.

The fact that that the IAATO is thinking about sustainable travel to Antarctica is encouraging as well, as it shows that they are moving towards becoming better stewards of the environment and ensuring that the continent remains in pristine condition for future adventure travelers to enjoy as well. It remains to be seen what kind of plans they put in place in this area however and how it’ll impact the industry as a whole.