Polar tourism is big business. Where once travelling to this remote icy wilderness was the domain of intrepid explorers, nowadays there's a wide range of package holidays available, from penguin safaris and luxury cruises in Antarctica to polar bear pilgrimages and voyages to see the northern lights in the Arctic--the 'land of the midnight sun'.
'Regions, once the preserve of local and indigenous communities and scientists, are now very much on the fashionable tourist map and cruise-line schedules,' said Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UN Environment Programme executive director, in 2007.
Annual tourist numbers to the Arctic have grown from about one million in the early 1990s to more that 1.5 million, while in Antarctica, seaborne tourists rose from 4,698 in 1990-91 to 46,213 in 2007-08.
The phenomenal growth in tourism to the poles has led to concerns about the impact it can have on the polar environment and local communities, especially when it comes to cruises--the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry. 'If tourism to the poles is not managed correctly, it can cause significant impacts,' says Patrick Lewis, WWF's Immediate Threats programme officer. 'Particularly in the Arctic, a lot of the areas that are opening up due to the retreat of sea ice aren't particularly well charted navigation routes, so there's a definite increase in the risk of oil spills. If one did occur, because of the cold temperatures, the natural breakdown of oil is much slower, and it could potentially take years to break down. And we certainly don't have the technology at the moment to even begin to clear up oil in ice-covered waters.'
The potential for an environmental disaster is equally applicable in the frozen south. 'We have serious concerns about the large cruise ships going into Antarctic waters because of their use of heavy fuel oil,' says Dr John Shears of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). 'But very few of those large cruise ships actually land--they will just go on a cruise for maybe a day or two. But they have so many people on board that it would be too dangerous to land all those people, and it would take three or four days to do it on small Zodiacs.'
However, Shears adds, 'there is still a concern about what would happen with a major maritime casualty--if you look at the sinking of the Explorer in 2007, it does show you that there are risks. People see the brochure and photographs and see Antarctica as this pristine, beautiful, sunny wilderness--and it can be--but five minutes later, you can be in the middle of a whiteout in very dangerous sea-ice conditions. It's still a very remote destination.'
Despite the risk from oil spills, the WWF International Arctic Programme sees tourism as one way to support the protection of the Arctic environment, especially where travellers use reputable, conservation-minded tour operators and suppliers. WWF has produced a checklist of responsible tourism in the Arctic, recommending that travellers choose operators that have a staff-client ratio of 15 clients or fewer per staff member for land-based tours, and 20 passengers or fewer per staff member for cruises. For polar travellers wishing to visit Svalbard, Jan Mayen and Greenland, Lewis recommends choosing a member of the Association of Arctic Cruise Operators (www.aeco. no), whose 13 companies operate vessels ranging from small sailing yachts to expedition cruise ships with up to 320 passengers.
BAS's Shears agrees that choosing the right operator is crucial. 'It's about buyer beware,' he says. 'There's a responsibility on the tourists to check out the companies and make sure that what they're saying on their website actually happens in practice. You are also likely to get a better experience if you're on a smaller ship--you're likely to have more landings. And check out the age and condition of the ship and the experience of the operators--there are some tall-ship operators that have worked in Antarctic for 20 years now, and they are pretty experienced at what they do. …