Will Proposed New Rules Limit Cruise Visits to Antarctica?

April 6, 2009
Over the past few years, Antarctica has been in the hot seat with accidents raising concerns about the impact of oil spills and shipwrecks on the region's fragile ecosystem. Already this season, two ships have run aground -- Quark Expeditions' Ocean Nova and an Argentine ship named Ushuaia -- necessitating the evacuation of passengers. Last winter, both G.A.P. Adventures' M/S Explorer and Hurtigruten's Fram struck icebergs -- the former of which actually sank.

Now, all eyes are on Antarctica again. The Associated Press and other media outlets have reported that the United States government is pushing for an amendment to the 50-year-old Antarctica Treaty, which would limit the size of cruise ships allowed to sail there and the number of passengers they're allowed to bring ashore.

Visits to the White Continent have risen sharply, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which represents over 100 companies in the region -- from expedition lines Lindblad and Hurtigruten to more mainstream lines that sail sightseeing-only cruises, like Holland America and Princess. In 2006/2007, 29,500 tourists took a trip to Antarctica compared to 45,213 in 2008/2009; the 1992/1993 season saw just 6,700 visits. Though some flightseeing tours are offered, the vast majority of Antarctica vacationers come by sea.

The proposal calls for barring ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing sites, restricting landings to one vessel at a time per site, and limiting passengers onshore to 100 at a time. It would also mandate a minimum of one guide for every 20 tourists while ashore. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly urged for these restrictions at an international meeting on the Antarctic and the Arctic Monday, citing concerns about the impact of tourism on Antarctica's environment.

Here's what's interesting, though -- none of the proposed restrictions will necessarily put a deep freeze on the offering of Antarctica cruises. That's because the rules are already being followed voluntarily after being adopted by the Antarctica treaty as "recommendations" in 2007. In fact, a spokesperson for Hurtigruten tells us "the new rule would have little if any impact" because the line already follows the recommendations; its ice-rated Fram carries no more than 318 passengers, and the line "strictly follow[s] the guidelines of no more than 100 passengers ashore at a time."

Steve Wellmeier, executive director for the IAATO, told the Associated Press "we follow [these restrictions] religiously," and assures that the organization supports the proposal for the mandates because, without them, enforcement is "an honor system to a large extent."

Do you think these measures will help further protect Antartica? Share your opinion.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor