Tuesday 1 June 2010

Cruise Weekly: Last Hurrah for Big Ships in Antarctic Waters

You want the good news or the bad news?

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) reckons that the new heavy fuel oil ban on ships travelling through Antarctic waters will have a dramatic impact on tourist numbers to the region. But read between the lines to see what this concern is all about.

IAATO members already work to strict ‘guidelines’ (not rules) that seek to enforce an operational code among visiting expedition vessels. This includes things like:

* no more than 100 passengers ashore at any one time at any one location;
* vessels carrying more than 500 passengers do not land; and
* no waste disposal.

Any operator breaching these would be quickly outed by conscientious passengers, staff and competitors.

"These criteria represent absolute minimum standards which must be enforced in the area," said Caroline Schacht of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Hamburg. "Unfortunately, far too many shipping lines have not signed the treaty."

Such has been the success of Antarctica as a tourist destination, demand has soared.

The first paying passengers travelled with Chilean and Argentinean naval ships in the 1950s before Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first dedicated expedition in 1966. From a base of about 2000 passengers in the mid-1980s, passenger numbers have increased at least 1000 per year to the point where over 40,000 visited in the 2008/09 season – although not all landed.

So the hoo-ha about drastic reduction in visitor numbers is a bit of a distraction as all we are losing are the cruise-by voyeurs who inflate those figures anyway. Good riddance.

“It will only be the large, cruise-only vessels that are affected,” says IAATO’s executive director Steve Wellmeier, “not the smaller, expedition ships that most people think of as Antarctic cruising.”

The fuel ban is mainly a reaction to the growing number of ‘incidents’. It seems every season at least one vessel runs aground or worse. Critics, with some justification, believe that an environmental disaster is looming.

"I am greatly concerned that unless we take action, there will be a serious maritime casualty involving a tourist vessel in Antarctica, and we will be faced with a humanitarian and environmental disaster," New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said at an Antarctic Treaty meeting last year.

This action will certainly eliminate the large vessels carrying the offensive heavy bunker oil not unlike the gooey stuff washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico. All ships making landings in sensitive areas carry light fuel oil, like common diesel – still not perfect, but much easier to deal with in the event of an emergency.

Like so many ‘pristine’ environments, we end up loving them to death, and the natural reaction is to limit the number of vessels and sailings.

Sebastian Ahrens, managing director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises in Hamburg, whose company helped set up the IAATO, would prefer operators to be strictly regulated rather than rely on voluntary compliance.

"If you cruise along certain parts of the Norwegian coast, the authorities keep a very close watch, but for the Antarctic no clearly defined rules apply,” he said.

It’s only a matter of time before adventure travel in Antarctica is subject to enforceable regulations and capped numbers. Good for operators with licenses, but what about those who want to go?

The fuel ban comes into effect in August 2011.

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