Antarctica Saw More Visitors In 2012

Earlier this week, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) concluded their 24th annual meeting in Punta Arenas, Chile. Topics at the gathering included strategic planning for sustainable tourism in the Antarctic, methods of safe travel that can help protect the fragile ecosystem there and ways of enticing more travel companies to join the Association. During the conference, the IAATO also released its final tourism numbers for the 2012-2013 Antarctic travel season that has recently ended. Those numbers were up sharply over the previous year, indicating that there is still a strong interest amongst travelers to visit the frozen continent.

According to the IAATO, there were 34,316 visitors to the Antarctic last year – up from 26,519 during the 2011-2012 season. The organization noted that much of the growth came as a result of an increase of passengers on small- and medium-sized vessels over previous years as well as a jump in the number of travelers electing a cruise-only option. On those types of trips the visitors never actually step foot on the continent of Antarctica at all, but simply stay aboard their ship the entire time as it cruises about the Southern Ocean.

Looking ahead to next season, the IAATO doesn’t believe it will see nearly as large of an increase in the number of visitors as it did this year. Growth is predicted to be modest at best with most of the gains continuing to come from the cruise-only category. It seems that while interest amongst travelers for visiting the Antarctic is high, most would prefer to just see it from a distance.

Visitors who make the journey to the bottom of the world do seem to have some concerns about the impact of travel on the environment there, however. The IAATO revealed that more than $200,000 was directly contributed to various Antarctic charities by travelers who visited that part of the world with its member companies. That brought the total to more than $2.7 million over the past nine years.

British Naval Vessel Rescues Antarctic Cruise Ship

A ship in the British navy came to the aid of a stranded cruise ship in the Antarctic last week, helping to clear a path through the ice that had entrapped the civilian vessel. While no one was injured and the entire operation took just a few hours to complete, the incident underscores the challenges of traveling in the Southern Ocean, even in the 21st century.

The ice-breaking vessel HMS Protector was on a regular patrol route off the coast of Antarctica, with the Norwegian cruise liner Fram following close behind. The cruise ship had hoped to safely follow the Protector through the icy waters that were dense with ice floes at the time. But before the boat could navigate out of the perilous region, the large chunks of ice moved in, completely encircling the vessel and preventing it from moving forward or backward.

A quick call to the Protector alerted the first ship of the situation, bringing it quickly around to render aid. It took the icebreaker two hours to crack through the 13-foot-thick ice that had encircled the cruise liner, before it was free to continue its voyage.

The passengers aboard the Fram were fortunate that the Protector was so close at hand or they could have been held in place for much longer. Considering the size of the Southern Ocean and the relatively few vessels in those waters, it could have been hours or even days before another ship could have come to assist. Similarly, had the Protector not been an icebreaker it wouldn’t have been able to lend a hand either.

The Norwegian cruise liner was never in any real danger, but ships running into problems off of Antarctica are a fairly common affair. Back in 2007, the cruise ship MV Explorer sank off the coast of the frozen continent and in 2010 another ship ran into trouble when it lost an engine while crossing the perilous Drake Passage. In 2011, a third ship ran aground on rocks near the Antarctic Peninsula, breaching its hull in the process. In each case, all passengers were evacuated safely from these vessels but some travel experts believe that it is only a matter of time before a tragic accident occurs.

Updated: More Info on this incident
After writing this story I heard from Steve Wellmeier, the Administrative Director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) who filled in a lot more information of what was happening when the Fram became stuck in the ice.

In seems the cruise ship was hoping to make a regularly scheduled stop at Brown Bluff, their scheduled destination for the day, but due to high concentrations of ice in the area, it didn’t seem likely that they would reach that point. The Protector was already heading to the same location and invited the Fram to follow along. The two ships then proceeded to Brown Bluff as scheduled, with passengers from both vessels going ashore.

Later, as both ships were making their way back to open water, the Protector once again took the lead and proceeded ahead. At one point they reached an area of pack ice that was thicker than what they had encountered previously, so the Fram stopped to let the icebreaker do her job. While the Protector nosed ahead, the dense ice moved in quickly around the cruise liner, preventing her from moving forward and trapping her in place.

Realizing what had happened, the Protector then came around and cleared the ice quickly and efficiently from the path of the Fram, freeing her to continue her voyage. We’re told that this was not a rescue per se, but rather a routine assistance of one ship to another, without danger to either vessel or anyone aboard.

It is good to get the full story directly from a source that knows the logistics of what was happening in the Antarctic. The IAATO, and its members, work hard to ensure that travel in that part of the world is safe for both passengers and the environment. Their efforts make it possible for those of us who want to go to Antarctica to actually do so.

[Photo Credit: Royal Navy]

Antarctic Tourism Expected To Increase In 2012-2013

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) is predicting an increase in Antarctic tourism this year as adventurous travelers begin to return to the frozen continent in larger numbers. If that prediction holds true it will be the first time in four years that Antarctica will see an increase in visitors, which is good news for travel companies that operate in the region but could spell an end to the fantastic discounts that we’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

The IAATO says that during the 2011-2012 season, which ended in April, its members carried 26,519 passengers to Antarctica. This year it is predicting that the number of travelers will increase to 34,950, which is still well below the record high of 46,265 visitors set during the 2007-2008 season. The following year marked the start of the global economic downturn from which many countries are still struggling to recover. Additionally, a 2010 ban on ships that use heavy fuel oils has helped to reduce capacity to the Southern Ocean as well. Both of those factors are believed to have contributed to the sharp decline.

While the number of visitors to the Antarctic has steadily dropped over the past three years, travelers have been able to take advantage of the situation and visit the continent at bargain prices. A number of high-profile tour operators have offered substantial discounts, and even “two for one” specials, to help fill their cruise ships. Now that demand appears to be on the rise again, those of us who have always wanted to visit the Antarctic may have missed our opportunity. Alternatively, if you do come across a good discount for the 2012-2013 season, you just may want to grab it.

[Photo courtesy of the IAATO]

Antarctic tourism drops in 2010

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) announced yesterday that the number of travelers visiting Antarctica actually dropped during the 2010-2011 tourism season – a trend that they expect to continue into the 2011-2012 season as well.

During the 2010-2011 Antarctic season, the total number of travelers on IAATO member-operated vessels was listed as 33,824, which is down 8.3% from last year, when 36,875 people visited the frozen continent or the waters off its shores. These figures represent the number of people who traveled through the region on small and medium sized expedition ships, and yachts, as well as large cruise ships. A little more than half of those visitors (18,534 to be exact) actually went ashore on the Antarctic continent itself, while the others merely cruised the Southern Ocean.

The 2011-2012 season looks to have even more significant drops in the number of visitors to Antarctica. This August a ban on the use of heavy fuel oils on ships traveling through the Southern Ocean will go into effect, preventing some of the larger cruise ships from entering those waters. That ban, which is being instituted by the International Maritime Organization, is designed to protect the fragile Antarctic environments, but it will also have an impact on the number of travelers who visit the area as well. The IAATO predicts that cruse-only passengers will drop from 14,737 in 2010 to less than 5000 this year. Factor in an economy that remains sluggish, and tourism in Antarctica is projected to drop an astounding 25% year-over-year.

The IAATO is an organization that is made up travel companies that operate in and around the Antarctic continent. The organization’s main goal is to support safe, sustainable tourism operations in that region. It’s more than 100 members have worked closely with one another to develop guidelines and standards that ensure their clients can travel in the Antarctic in a safe manner that is also environmentally responsible.

What does all of this mean for you and me? Expect fewer opportunities to cruise the Southern Ocean, at least in the near future, as the number of large cruise ships operating in the area is expected to drop to just five vessels. But it could also mean substantial discounts for trips to Antarctica as well, as tour operators scramble to fill cabins on their smaller ships in the season ahead. If you’ve ever wanted to go to Antarctica, this just may be the time to book that trip.

IAATO comments on missing Antarctic yacht

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has released a statement regarding the Berserk, a Norwegian yacht that went missing in the Antarctic last week. While calling the incident “tragic,” the statement reiterates that the ship was not part of the organization, and was operating without regard to important safety guidelines.

The IAATO is a member-based organization that is focused on delivering safe and environmentally responsible options for travel to Antarctica. The association is made up of tour operators and travel companies who work together to ensure that sailing through the Southern Ocean is free from danger and available to all. Members are required to obtain all the necessary sailing permits from national authorities before they set out on their voyage, as well as provide an itinerary that offers details on what course they will be following as they travel throughout the region. The crew of the Berserk, did none of those things before setting out on their ill fated journey.

On Tuesday, February 22, the Berserk was sailing 18 nautical miles off the coast of Antarctica when it activated its emergency locator beacon. Massive storms were hitting the area at the time, and the high winds and rough waters prevented rescue operations from commencing for more than 24 hours. By the time search and rescue teams hit the area, the beacon was no longer transmitting and the yacht could not be reached by radio. It was believed that the ship had five passenger on board, but two of them were later found, alive and well, on the Antarctic continent, where they were embarking on a journey to the South Pole. The story took an ominous turn later in the week when an abandoned life raft was discovered adrift in the ocean, with no sign of passengers. Later, it was discovered that the Berserk was sailing without permits and without alerting any kind of national authority of their planned course.

Sailing in the Southern Ocean is a dangerous proposition, even in the best of times. The storms are powerful and massive icebergs lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to punch a hole through the hulls of passing ships. Because of these dangers, the IAATO released a set of guidelines for independent sailors on private ships passing through Antarctic waters. Sadly, had the crew of the Berserk heeded those guidelines, there is a better chance that they would be alive today.

To read the full statement from the IAATO, click here.

[Photo credit: IAATO]