Magazine article Geographical

Here Today Gone Tomorrow (Get the T-Shirt): With the Polar Regions Bearing the Brunt of Global Warming, Tourists Are Increasingly Visiting Them in the Knowledge They May Soon Be Changed Irrevocably. Christian Amodeo Plots the Rise and Current State of Polar Tourism

Magazine article Geographical

Here Today Gone Tomorrow (Get the T-Shirt): With the Polar Regions Bearing the Brunt of Global Warming, Tourists Are Increasingly Visiting Them in the Knowledge They May Soon Be Changed Irrevocably. Christian Amodeo Plots the Rise and Current State of Polar Tourism

Article excerpt

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Romanticised, mythologised and a part of our collective imagination for centuries, travel at the poles, for so long the stuff of derring-do, increasingly represents an expensive leisure activity suitable for all, even your grandmother.

Not yet a century has passed since Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole in December 1911, marking the peak of the heroic age of exploration. During that period, 16 major expeditions were launched, on which 17 lives were lost in the name of science and discovery.

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From military explorers to scientists and now tourists, the evolution of humans in Antarctica in the space of just three generations reflects both the technological advancements of the 20th century and the latest trends in society and tourism.

POLAR EXPLOSION

Inhospitable they may be, but the poles are seeing increasing numbers of visitors. Annual figures for the Arctic, where tourism has been in existence since the 19th century and has long since been relied upon by local economies, have increased from about a million in the early 1990s to more than 1.5 million today, due in part to lengthening summer seasons brought about by climate change.

Most visitors arrive by ship. In 2007, 370,000 cruise passengers visited Norway, twice the number that arrived in 2000. The islands of Svalbard had 45 cruise visits, 17 more than the previous year. Iceland, a country where tourism is the second-largest industry, has enjoyed an annual growth of nine per cent since 1990.

Meanwhile, Alaska received some 1,029,800 passengers in 2007, up 7.3 per cent on 2006. Greenland especially has seen rapid growth of marine tourism, with cruise ship arrivals jumping 250 per cent since 2004.

While low-key tourism began in Antarctica during the 1950s, it was only since the adoption of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty in 1991 that visitor numbers have risen dramatically. From 4,698 seaborne tourists in 1990-91, annual numbers had risen to 46, 213 by 2007-08, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), whose own ranks grew by nine to 109 members this year.

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The global economic downturn has curbed the annual 20.6 per cent rate of increase in visitors to the Antarctic--last season saw a drop of 17 per cent to 38,200. However, there has been a 760 per cent rise in land-based tourism there since 1997. More people than ever are landing at fragile sites, with light aircraft, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles increasingly used for greater access; while in the past two seasons, 'fly-sail' operations have begun. These deliver tourists by air to ships, so far more groups can enjoy a cruise in a season; large cruise ships capable of carrying up to 800 passengers aren't uncommon.

Interestingly, it would seem that a high number of visitors return to the poles. 'Looking at six years' worth of data, of the people who have been to the polar regions, roughly 25 per cent go for a second time,' says Louisa Richardson, a senior marketing executive at tour operator Exodus.

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'I think most passengers on my Antarctic trip would have told you it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,' says Christopher Ray, a business analyst from London who visited Antarctica in January and then Svalbard in June with Exodus. 'However, after a few clays, it seemed as though a significant number of us were already working out when we could return.'

A WARMER WELCOME

In the same period that tourism has exploded, the 'health' of the poles, especially the Arctic, has deteriorated. 'The biggest changes taking place in the Antarctic are related to climate change,' says Rod Downie, environmental manager with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

At the IAATO's annual meeting in June, its members officially recognised that climate change poses the most significant current threat to the Antarctic environment, and established a working group to investigate ways of reducing tourism's carbon footprint. …

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