Antarctica Cruises Not Impacted by Regulations -- Yet

April 22, 2009

AntarcticaIs what's best for Antarctica what's best for Antarctica cruises? Last week, a new amendment was passed that will limit tourism there -- a win-win situation that protects the delicate ecosystem from heavy cruise ship traffic, but still allows travelers to visit. But a second amendment, designed to further protect Antarctic waters from pollution, may force some cruise lines to pull out of the region.

The member countries of the 50-year-old Antarctica Treaty have approved a proposed amendment that will limit the size of cruise ships allowed to sail in Antarctica and the number of passengers cruise lines are allowed to bring ashore. As we reported earlier this month, these changes won't impact current programs in Antarctica because the soon-to-be-mandated rules are already being followed voluntarily. Steve Wellmeier, executive director for the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which represents all cruise operators in the region, tells us that the guidelines originated with IAATO quite a few years ago. It could take a few years for each country to ratify the treaty, but all IAATO members are already obliged to follow them per IAATO's bylaws and will continue to do so.

But Antarctica cruises are not out of the ice field yet. Wellmeier tells us that a separate, and potentially more detrimental, issue is looming -- and hardly anyone is talking about it, except for Cruise Critic. This summer, a subcommittee of the International Maritime Organization will propose to the Marine Environment Protection Committee an amendment to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). If approved, the amendment would prohibit cruise ships from carrying and burning heavy fuels in Antarctica. The concern, of course, is that heavy fuels emit more pollution and could damage the delicate ecosystem if leaked during a shipwreck (in 2007, a vessel did actually sink -- G.A.P. Adventures' M/S Explorer).

What does this mean? Basically, cruise ships that travel in the Antarctic Treaty area (south of 60 degrees south latitude) would have to carry and use a lighter, cleaner-burning fuel -- marine gas oil -- which is significantly more expensive than commonly used heavier fuels.

Interestingly, some ports -- such as Los Angeles and cities in Europe -- already require or encourage ships to burn lighter fuel near the shoreline, so many cruise lines are accustomed to footing the extra bill. Ships typically use more economical fuels to get to and from protected areas, switching to lighter fuel only when needed. And, under the amendment as it was originally proposed, Antarctica goers would have been able to do the same, switching from a heavier fuel to a lighter fuel near the continent.

However, Wellmeier says the proposal has since been tweaked to prohibit not only the use of heavy fuels but carriage as well -- which means a cruise ship would not be able to store any fuel onboard while in the region except for marine gas oil. In other words, a cruise line would have to calculate a ship's trip so that nothing but marine gas oil would be left upon arrival -- and then burn only marine gas oil on the way back, which Wellmeier says could cost a big-ship line several million extra dollars per season.

Wellmeier believes these restrictions could cause some lines to pull back on (or pull out of) the Antarctica market -- from smaller lines that currently burn intermediate fuel (which would also be banned), such as Quark Expeditions, to more mainstream lines, like Holland America. The economic impact would also be felt in South America, where Antarctica cruises generally originate.

If approved, the new rules could go into effect as early as 2011 or 2012. "What we're trying to do is see if there are other ways that these cruise lines can operate for another year or two beyond that until they can find some way to comply with this new MARPOL amendment," Wellmeier says. "The [U.S.] government is aware of our feelings on this, and is open to hearing our point of view. They didn't realize that with these modifications to include carriage as well as use, there would be such a big impact on the cruise industry. But they have been very gracious, as has the U.K."

One idea that Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has put on the table: Protected tanks that could enable ships to safely carry at least intermediate fuels in the treaty area.

We'll be keeping a close eye on this issue. Stay tuned.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor