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Tourists in Antarctica

Should tourists be banned from Antarctica?

This season around 37, 000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica - home to about 20 million pairs of breeding penguins. But is it ethically acceptable to go on holiday to such a pristine environment?

Enfolded in two glacial arms the bay before us sparkles ultramarine, the water flecked with ice-lilies and dotted with bits of floating icebergs.

A sheer cliff towers dark above us, flanked by snow slopes as pure white as the glistening fronts of the little Adelie penguins whose spectacled eyes peer curiously around as they waddle and toboggan about their business just a few feet away.

This is Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula and togged up in layer upon layer of fleece, topped with vivid red wetskins I am all too aware that this is not my habitat.

Which begs the question: Should I be here? Am I, just by setting foot on this extraordinary continent, disturbing a pristine environment and polluting the last great wilderness on earth?

All visitors leave a footprint, admits my tour leader, Boris Wise of One Ocean Expeditions, and we all tend to go to the same places - the accessible coastline - which is also where the penguins and seals go to breed.

Nonetheless, he argues, carefully controlled tourism is not just OK but useful.

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Without a native population of its own, Antarctica needs advocates and tourism creates a global constituency of people ready to support - and indeed fund - its preservation.

Not everyone is convinced the benefits outweigh the risks but most are pragmatic.

"It is better to have a certain level of responsible tourism than for it to go under the radar, " says Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions at the British Foreign Office.

This season 37, 000 tourists are expected in Antarctica, although 10, 000 will never go ashore.

About half the tourist ships are, like ours, flagged to Antarctic Treaty countries making them legally bound by the treaty's environmental standards.

The other half are worryingly outside this regulation but most are part of the International Maritime Organisation which is just introducing a stricter polar code, and at present all the companies regularly bringing tourists here are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which works closely with the Antarctic Treaty System.

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