Tuesday 18 Dec, 2007

Antarctica, anyone?

Antarctica stirs the emotions of explorers. Its remoteness and uncharted territory calls out to adventurers. Its icy, white expanse may be the last great frontier of land exploration on Earth.

But Antarctica is heating up—and I don’t mean global warming.

More and more explorers, adventurers and plain-old tourists are making their way to Antarctica. Technically the world’s largest desert, Antarctica is becoming a hotspot for the truly adventurous (and wealthy) tourists. A recent New York Times article cites the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, which says that more than 35,000 tourists are expected to visit the continent next spring and summer. That’s a 418 percent increase since 1992-93, when fewer than 7,000 tourists visited the White Continent.

Many companies, including Go Ahead Tours, conduct cruise tours that reach Antarctica. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are there more tourists, but now there also are even tours to the South Pole.

However, the sinking of the cruise ship M/S Explorer
last month brought on an onslaught of publicity about the dangers of
increased Antarctic tourism. In addition to the New York Times, check
out The Chicago Tribune, CNN, World Hum and Gadling, to name a few. The best quote from the NYT piece comes from Jim
Barnes, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean

“There’s been kind of an explosion of tourism in Antarctica. Do we want this to become Disneyland
or do we want some controls?”

In addition to the safety and environmental concerns, the biggest problem seems to be that no one entity governs the continent and the issues surrounding it. Seven countries claim portions of Antarctica, but an alliance of Antarctic Treaty nations is the only recognized authority and even that is tenuous and nonbinding. That leaves Antarctica unregulated, unprotected and unguarded.

Still, that massive, icy frontier remains a beacon for wannabe explorers and thrill-seekers. If nothing else, it’s fun to imagine making your way to the Great White South. Or not. Check out this rocky video of a Russian vessel crossing the treacherous Drake Passage between Argentina and Antarctica. Caution: It’s not for the easily queasy …