Antarctic tourism drops in 2010

Antarctic tourism will drop as much as 25% in 2011. 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.

Chile plans to build museum in Antarctica

Chile plans to open a museum in AntarcticaRegional authorities in Chile have announced plans to build a museum in Antarctica in an effort to bring more tourism and scientific attention to the area. The museum, which would be built in the country’s Arturo Prat Antarctic base, would be designed to highlight Chile’s part in exploring the frozen continent.

The new museum would house some important relics from Chile’s Antarctic history, including a backpack, pickaxe, and snowshoes that were used by the founders of the 280-acre base, which was established back in 1947. Navel vessels from the country also played an important role in rescuing Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance, when their ship was crushed by the pack-ice, stranding them for months in the inhospitable Antarctic climate.

The plans for the project include expanding the current welcome area to the Chilean base, adding some 1076 square-feet to house the historical displays. While that probably doesn’t seem like a very large museum, the expectations of attendance are also quite modest. A spokesperson for the plan says they expect that the museum will attract “more than 500 people per year.”

While Antarctica continues to be a popular tourist destination amongst the adventure travel crowd, it is far from mainstream. When I mention the fact that I want to visit the place, I’m usually met with a strange expression, usually followed with the one-word question: “why?” Now I can simply tell them that I have to visit the museum there. I’m sure they’ll completely understand.

IAATO comments on missing Antarctic yacht

The IAATO comments on the yacht missing in the AntarcticThe 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]

Missing Antarctic yacht update: two crew members found

Two crew members from the yacht that went missing in the antarctic have been found.Yesterday we posted a story about a Norwegian yacht that went missing in the Antarctic with five crew members aboard. Two of those crew members have now been located, alive and well, on the continent itself, and they are reportedly providing clues that could help search and rescue teams find the missing ship.

When the story first broke, we knew that the yacht, christened the Berserk, was last known to be sailing in the Southern Ocean approximately 18 nautical miles off the coast of Antarctica. The crew had planned to make a brief visit to the continent to drop off two people, who were hoping to make the journey to the South Pole on ATV’s. Apparently that drop off did occur, as Jarle Andhoey, the skipper of the yacht, and an 18-year old crew member, contacted search teams via satellite phone yesterday and have been providing crucial information about the missing ship’s planned route. That information could be instrumental in discovering where the yacht is at this time.

Two days ago the Berserk activated its emergency locator beacon indicating that it was in trouble. At the time, storms were raging across the Southern Ocean, bringing high winds and very rough seas to the region. Those storms prevented rescue operations from commencing for nearly another day, and by the time search and rescue teams were able to enter the area, the emergency beacon was no longer transmitting. All attempts to contact the vessel have been fruitless as well. Three crew members, including two Norwegians and a British national, are believed to have been aboard the Berserk when it went missing.

Search teams are continuing to comb the area today, holding out hope for a miracle. It is possible that the yacht is now adrift without power on the Southern Ocean, simply waiting to be found. But with each passing hour, the chances of finding the boat and her crew grow a bit smaller.

[Photo credit: Berserk Expeditions]

Travelers stranded in Punta Arenas, Chile due to strikes, road blocks

Strikes in Punta Arenas, Chile stranded travelers for daysThousands of travelers were left stranded in Punta Arenas, Chile over the past few days due to protests, general strikes, and road blocks throughout the region. Unrest exploded in the area late last week when the Chilean government announced plans to raise the price of fuel by 17%, which caused riots in the street and closed off traffic both in and out of the city. Strikes and protests were also underway in the nearby town of Puerto Natales. Both cities are located in the far south of the Patagonia region of the country.

Punta Arenas is a port city with a population of about 155,000 and is a major launching point for tourists cruising the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica each year. During the high season, which is currently in full swing, thousands of foreign visitors pass through the city as they come and go from their various cruise ships. Those arriving back to port over the weekend were greeted with violence in the streets, protestors carrying signs, and a virtual stand still to all travel.

Reports from the city indicate that many shops and cafes have been closed for the past few days, and food is in short supply. The airport has been closed as well and road blocks have made it difficult for travelers to leave by ground vehicle to other destinations. Some made plans to go by bus to Argentina to seek passage back to their home countries.

There has been some encouraging news however, as protesters have agreed to allow the passage of some vehicles on the roads and there are indications that the airport would begin to open for limited traffic as well. As a result, travelers were expected to slowly start to filter out yesterday and today, finally getting the opportunity to begin their journey home.

This story is another good reminder that anything can, and will, happen when we travel in foreign countries. Some of the visitors to Punta Arenas have been stuck there for as much as four or five days and while most have places to stay, food has certainly been in short supply. Hopefully normal air travel will resume today and they can finally begin to head home, but it sounds like it has been quite an ordeal for foreigners, who have been caught in the crossfire between the government and the local population in Chile.

[Photo credit: South Atlantic News Agency]