Ecotourists in an icy land

Credits: © Colin Monteath / Hedgehog House

These tourists, snapping Gentoo Penguins, in Paradise Bay, Antarctica are leading a new ecotourism invasion to the world's biggest continent - and creating controversy in the process.

Not long ago, Antarctica was home only to explorers and scientific surveys. Today, around 120 cruises visit the Antarctic each year, carrying some 9,000 tourists - a tiny number compared with the daily tally in a sizeable national park, but one that is set to grow. The tourist season runs from early November to early March - approximately 18 weeks in which the seasonal ice pack retreats, and snow disappears from some of the coasts. The continent basks in a brief cool summer; with temperatures close to freezing. Tourists are attracted by the splendid alpine scenery, the glaciers, icebergs and floes and especially the wildlife - the penguins in their breeding colonies, the albatrosses and swarms of lesser petrels, the skuas, gulls and terns, the seals and whales. Some conservationists believe that this pristine environment should be free from tourism and only open to scientific research. They fear that tourists are already trampling vegetation, disturbing wildlife and spreading litter, and will continue to do so on an increasing scale. They believe penguins may be forced off their eggs by the proximity of humans Others say there is little evidence to suggest that tourism is having an adverse effect on the region and its wildlife. But should numbers increase threefold or more, parts of the Antarctic environment may be at risk and more realistic forms of environmental management will need to be found.

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