The world’s least visited, least populated continent Antarctica features many things especially its frozen scenic beauty. The frozen land is a depiction of a fairy tale. Travelers are encouraged to step to the continent at least once in their life. But the travel is not so smooth as we think.
Floating icebergs, chattering of penguins, and the way the animals like seals take care of their young ones are so pretty and eyes melting scenes.
Travel to the continent also matters. In the early 1990s, fewer than 7,000 people visited the fabled seventh continent. Last year, that figure reached 74,000, with numbers expected to continue increasing. The vast majority get here by flying to South America or South Africa and then boarding an expedition ship, traveling across the turbulent seas of the Drake Passage before arriving at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. There they either cruise amongst the whales and icebergs or are transferred to shore via 10-person, rigid-hulled inflatable Zodiacs to visit seals and penguin colonies. It’s now easier and cheaper than ever before to make this trip of a lifetime.
During the Covid pandemic, cruise companies were winding up their operations for the southern winter. There was a rush to get people home as the gateway ports went into lockdown. The last few ships struggled to find a country that would welcome them.
There is no indigenous population in Antarctica, and human activity there is still relatively recent.
The only permanent installations are a handful of scientific stations, which only employ scientists and their support staff — a term comprising anyone from chefs and maintenance workers to electricians and airport managers.
Although few people live there, Antarctica’s scope of influence is massive. Climate change has caused the continent to shrink. And despite the treaty’s existence, world politics has changed and new power players — namely China — have emerged in Antarctica.
Covid hits the land
While Covid-19 might be a major concern for the Antarctic tourist industry, it could be good news for the region itself. Without tens of thousands of tourists visiting, there’s less risk of non-native species being introduced, habitats being trampled or pristine areas polluted. As ships fall silent, carbon emissions are reduced too – the British Antarctic Survey estimates that doing an Antarctic cruise equates to 1.5 years’ worth of emissions for a typical European. But Hughes doubts whether such a short pause will really make much of a difference. “While it’s great that wildlife populations and habitats will get a break,” he said, “tourism is largely well-managed and well-regulated to avoid causing damage to the environment. So, stopping it, even for a year or more, probably won’t have a noticeable impact.”
Whether operators will be able to run trips will depend on whether the gateway ports – such as Ushuaia in Argentina (pictured) – will open up again. There’s no point in running a trip if passengers can’t get to the departure point. Even if they can – there’s still the thorny issue of quarantine.
The issue that will have a far greater effect than the pandemic on Antarctic tourism is climate change. More than 95% of visitors to Antarctica travel to the Antarctic Peninsula – the northernmost tip that stretches towards South America. This is the area that has also been most affected by climate change. Since the 1950s, the air temperature around the peninsula has increased by 3°C, making it one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet.
About 90% of tourists to Antarctica come by boat. These trips are expensive, and most travelers spend only a few hours actually on the land before getting back on the ships.
Currently, the United States is the single largest source of Antarctic tourism, but China is quickly rising into second place.
Some destinations, like Argentina resort town Ushuaia and Australia’s Hobart, make money from these tourists due to their location as final pre-Antarctic ports of call. In the future, more travel occurs and more travel companies invest in the continent’s infrastructure.
Antarctica was the first continent to be completely free of nuclear weapons. It is also demilitarized. The future of the continent is still not completely known and how the continent is going to be a country is a much-awaited one.