Antarctica, located almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle, is a continent of extremes. It is the Earths coldest, driest, windiest, iciest, most isolated, most unpolluted, most fragile and most infertile continent. It remains an untouched and pristine wilderness. The fact that it lacks a centralised government causes it to be susceptible to much disputes between various groups of people that have interests in the continent. The Antarctic Treaty which was signed in 1959 has only somewhat lessened these disputes as there is no one to enforce the rules of the Treaty.
The Australian Government has received a proposal from the Chilean hotel chain Chile Hotels Ltd to purchase the plant and equipment of Casey base to develop a tourist facility. This proposal needs to be evaluated and recommendations made in view of Australia’s Antarctic interests and responsibilities. The are many questions that need to be asked when evaluating this proposal. Is there a need for a tourist facility in Antarctica? What sort of impact will tourism have on the environment and important scientific studies conducted there? Australia has a reputation for its excellent management of the Antarctic environment. To preserve this reputation, Australia will need to be confident that the proposal will have no significant adverse affects on the environment. Environmental impact assessment is also required as a protocol of the Treaty where it states that the protection of the Antarctic environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems must come first when planning Antarctic activities - including tourism. The Treaty is aimed towards the promotion of scientific research. Although Casey base is no longer required for scientific research, the intrusion of tourism onto the mainland of Antarctica could waste many years of studies. Also, if the proposal was considered and conditions were placed on it, will it be economically and politically achievable?
Tourism in Antarctica is a growth industry. There is a decided trend in tourism wanting to experience the extremities of the earth - the last frontier. Opening up Antarctica has the advantage of getting people interested in the conservation of one of the world’s last true wilderness area. There is a great value in experiencing a place as the tourists are more likely to pay attention to political developments. Therefore, the proposal should be considered. Also, if the proposal was rejected outright, Chile Hotels Ltd would simply find another site to use where the Governments concerns, especially with the environment, are not so great. At least Casey base, the Australian Government can still impose restrictions on the company so that Antarctica is kept relatively pristine.
The following are the recommended qualifications for the proposal if it is to be implemented. Casey base should be leased to Chile Hotels Ltd instead of sold as this gives the Australian Government more rights to control what happens there. It also makes the regulation of the qualifications a less formidable task. It is recommended that only 100 tourists be permitted to stay at Casey Base at any onetime. This is so there is greater control over their whereabouts so no one goes out of the site without a tour guide. This is also for the safety of the tourist as the ‘White Desert’ is an easy place to become disoriented where the compass does not work near the South Pole. The funding needed to launch large-scale search and rescue operations would be extremely high causing it to be economically unachievable.
With just 100 tourists plus support staff of the hotel, there would be no need to extend the structure of Casey base. There should be no outside structural change as blasting would result in ground movement. This could wreck the breeding patterns of wildlife nearby as their breeding season coincides with the time when blasting is suitable. These wildlife could include penguin and seal colonies and other animals. Ground movement would also cause disruption to scientific studies. Tourism in Antarctica can interfere with research at the stations by demands for visits. Therefore, a very limited amount of tours will visit scientific stations.
Tours of no more than ten people including the guide should be conducted not only for the safety of the tourists but also the environment. It has been found that due to the harsh environment, plants that do live on Antarctica are easily damaged by human traffic. It has also been found that penguins’ nesting are easily disturbed by human . A large number of people on a tour would make it difficult for the tour guide to keep track of everyone. Australian government approved tour guides are to be employed by Chile Hotels Ltd. They will also act as regulating bodies representing Australia to enforce the protocols of the Treaty and the conditions set on the base. As nothing decomposes, any rubbish the Hotel may produce is to be taken back to Chile with the return ships. Biological rubbish is to be burnt and the ash taken back.
All tourists must be educated about the environmental concerns of Antarctica. Because of the unique conditions of Antarctica, much of the flora and fauna in there are geographically isolated. This combined with the sentimentality of keeping at least one place pristine and untouched means that tourist must observe strict instructions. They must not leave any litter around in case an animal eats it or gets caught in it, step on any plant life as they are very frail and slow growers, go near animals and stay right away from breeding grounds. Scientists and operators all stress the fact that the behaviour of visitors has to be closely controlled.
In 1989, the Argentine tourist ship Bahia Paraiso ran aground and released
600 000L of diesel fuel into the environment. Oil spills can have a greater consequence in Antarctica because so much life depend either directly or indirectly on the marine organism called krill and the cold waters of the Southern Ocean impede the break up of oil. Therefore, it is recommended that the vessels bringing in the tourists stop when they reach the pack ice. From there, perhaps large helicopters should transport the tourists to the base. To lower expenditure, ex-military helicopters could be used to accomplish this. Any extra money spent in this exercise would be a great amount less than the amount cost to clean up an oil spill. The visitor themselves should pay for this transportation.
Two great aspects that would minimise the amount of people who would come to Antarctica is the great amount of money needed to fund the trip and the dreaded voyage across the roughest sea in the world, ‘The Drake’.
The recommendations as set out above all have little environmental impact, scientific research impact and are economically and politically achievable. Preservation of the last wilderness, although mainly sentimental, is an important goal. To do that, we cannot shut out the world by refusing tourism in Antarctica. People will go to Antarctica if they really want to. Its up to us if we want them to go there through the groups with little environmental concern, or through the Australian system where we know that we can satisfy human desire and preserve the environment. At the same time, we can educate the world on the issues that Antarctica is dealing with and show them the passion of the last frontier.
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