The South Pole stands at the center of Antarctica. (Photo: Images )
At 1.5 times the area of the United States, Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent and the last great wilderness on the planet. Its area belongs to no single nation but seven countries make territorial claims. All human activities in Antarctica take place under the Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty. Signed in 1991, the Protocol aims to protect the Antarctic’s fragile ecosystem and designate the continent and its surrounding islands as a natural reserve. As a result, all tourist activity in Antarctica can be considered ecotourism as visitors must adhere to strict guidelines during their vacation.
Tourism is a relatively recent development in Antarctica. The first tourist visits began in the 1950s, when ships from Chile and Argentina took fee-paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands. Since then, numbers have increased and in 2010-2011, a total of almost 34, 000 tourists – including just under 13, 000 from the United States – visited the continent. The first human visitors, including explorers and whalers, killed animals to survive but today's visitors are much more careful to protect the environment.
Most ships visit the Antarctic peninsula region which is most accessible by sea, sometimes calling at South Georgia and the Falkland Islands on route. The most popular destination is Elephant Island, where 22 men from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “Endurance” expedition were stranded for 135 days in 1915. Nearby Deception Island also receives thousands of visitors each year. The island is in fact a dormant volcano and as a result you can bathe in thermally-heated water. The other main attraction is the island’s resident penguins; it has several rookeries with more than 50, 000 pairs of chinstrap penguins in each.
Approximately 200 non-native species now living in Antarctica have been brought to the continent by humans. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators emphasizes the role careful preparation plays in keeping this number down. Examine all the clothing and equipment you plan to bring with you – including items such as camera tripods and backpacks – for signs of dirt or other organic material. Clean everything thoroughly. Maintain this level of cleanliness during your visit by following your expedition guide’s decontamination procedures. This is particularly important if you are visiting more than one area in the Antarctic.
Taking care during your trip will help reduce your impact on the Antarctic environment, and the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators lays out clear guidelines for visitors. Avoid walking on vegetation such as moss and lichen; it is very slow growing and could take years to recover from your footsteps. For this reason you should stick to established trails. If you encounter wildlife, maintain your distance and move slowly and quietly. This is particularly important if the animals are breeding or moulting as they are vulnerable during these points in their life cycles. Never leave any litter behind you, including biodegradable food items.