For a video about the rescue of the Explorer passengers, visit NG.com
The sinking of the cruise ship Explorer in Antarctic waters last week has lots of people talking about how tourism is changing in the region. Over 35,000 visitors now travel way way down south, five times the number who trekked down there fifteen years ago. They get there on ships that vary in size from the 100-passenger types like the Explorer, to the huge cruise liners which transport thousands of passengers.
But since Antarctica is still one of the last unclaimed territories (seven nations claim to control portions of the region) there's difficulty in regulating the size and safety standards of the vessels that pass through the waters. A treaty group has been established as a kind oversight government for the area, and according to the New York Times, they're increasingly aware of the potential pitfalls for the tourism industry. The Times reports:
[W]ith the rapid rise of ship tourism in Antarctica — perhaps the last major ungoverned territory on earth — the sinking was not unanticipated. Both the United States and Britain warned a conference of Antarctic treaty nations in May that the tourism situation in the region was a potential disaster in the making.
...While the rescue may have been a success, the consequences for the Antarctic’s fragile environment of having a submerged ship that is estimated to be holding 48,000 gallons of marine diesel fuel sitting off its coast are unclear.
And while the frontier nature of Antarctica is a large part of its tourist appeal, it also means that the region is a legal muddle. There are no obvious answers about who is responsible for dealing with any environmental damage the Explorer may cause or how methods can be created to prevent future sinkings.
“There’s been kind of an explosion of tourism in Antarctica,” said Jim Barnes, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an association of environmental organizations that participates in Antarctic treaty meetings. “Do we want this to become Disneyland or do we want some controls?”
While it's hard to imagine Mickey taking residence in a snow castle down south, our friend Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the Times, notes that part of what made the rescue of the Explorer so remarkable was that there were two cruise ships nearby to help the stranded passengers. He spoke with travel writer Jon Bowermaster, who was on board the National Geographic Explorer, the first ship to arrive, about the tourism scene down there. "It's only gotten bigger," Bowermaster said. "There's over 50 ships. I've been been concerned about the perils of tourism, but you can't really stop it. It's a difficult place to be operating."
The stream of ships certainly wasn't the case when Sven Lindblad's family first started sending the Explorer to the Antarctic. Revkin asked Lindblad about the concerns he has for the future. He replied:
“I guess the thing that concerns me the most,” Mr. Lindblad said, “is clearly a vast increase of interest in traveling to the Antarctic and remote places in general and all of a sudden you just got more and more ships. There is no question that this is one of the most magnificent places in the world that you can travel, but it’s very, very important to build up some pretty significant experience because bad stuff can happen.”
Revkin notes that the allure of going to places like Antarctica is often the sense that you don't belong there in the first place - and asks whether it's worth risking life an limb to get there. What's your take? Let us know in the comments below.