The anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica has led to a great deal of media interest in the continent, something UKAHT is of course delighted about. As well as preserving historic sites, our role at UKAHT is to encourage interest in, and conversation about, Antarctica, which is why we have launched Antarctica In Sight, our new cultural programme that will bring the continent alive for thousands of people during 2020 and beyond.
Occasionally, media interest can be a little over-enthusiastic. Everyone loves a good headline, and when it comes to stories that involve ships and icy waters, “Titanic” is almost impossible to resist, as was the case with a Sky News story on Antarctic tourism today (subsequently picked up elsewhere). The story presented a rather exaggerated picture of the potential risks involved in Antarctic tourism. UKAHT would like to be totally clear that we value Antarctic tourism - exactly because, as currently practiced with partners in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, that tourism is carried out with maximum regard to the safety of all those who travel to Antarctica every year.
Tourism is a crucial part of Antarctic education. Our Port Lockroy team welcomes thousands of visitors from international cruise ships every year, showing them the historic sites, explaining the remarkable scientific discoveries of researchers based in Antarctica, and helping them post letters from the “penguin post office”.
Handled sensitively, tourism is of great benefit to Antarctica: people who have visited the continent and witnessed its beauty invariably become vocal advocates for its preservation.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is vital to ensuring responsible and ethical tourism in Antarctica. UKAHT works closely with tour operators from all over the world, who run safe and rewarding voyages for travellers on what, for most, will be a once in a lifetime trip.
Operators are strictly bound by IAATO objectives to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic”, and they work within the strict rules of the Antarctic Treaty which compels members to proactively safeguard the continent’s unique ecosystem. It’s in everyone’s interest that Antarctic tourism remains sustainable, with the highest regard for environmental responsibility and safety, and that the visitor experience is every bit as special for each successive visitor.
Of course, there are risks involved every time a ship sets sail from any port. Any sailor will tell you that the water must be respected: whether it’s a quiet harbour or the Southern Ocean. Antarctic waters do carry particular challenges, which is why the ships that tour operators and UKAHT work with must stick strictly to the International Maritime Organisation’s Polar Code, which demands that only ships that are properly kitted out, and crews who are properly trained, can enter Antarctic waters. As I pointed out to Sky News, “the need for ship captains to be highly experienced ice navigators and for expedition leaders to be highly skilled and experienced is essential.” And by essential we mean mandated and enforced across the industry.
Antarctica is an amazing place that is remembered forever by anyone who is lucky enough to visit it. And strict, internationally enforced regulations means Antarctic tourism is ethical, responsible and safe for all.