1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2007
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2007
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Antarctica is governed by a Treaty System which sets aside Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. There are currently 45 signatory countries to the Treaty. While scientific endeavour is still the primary motivation for activity in Antarctica, tourism has become a significant presence in recent years and, therefore, a significant issue for treaty countries. The Antarctic tourism season is the southern hemisphere summer, commencing in November and running through to early-March, depending on weather conditions. The vast majority of Antarctic tourism occurs in the Antarctic Peninsula region with ships departing from Argentina or Chile.
Commercial tourism in the Antarctic began in 1957 but only became a serious activity in 1969. Since the late-1980s there has been rapid growth in tourist activity. In 1992-93, around 6,500 passengers were landed. This past season (2005-06) at least 30,875 tourists entered the Treaty area, of which 26,245 were in the traditional category of medium-sized ships sending passengers ashore on small inflatable boats. The collapse of the Soviet Union released Russian polar research vessels onto the market and visitor numbers have escalated from this point onward. There were more than 250 voyages in 2005-06, that is an overall growth of more than 12% on the previous season. Ship numbers have increased from 11 in 1992-93 to over 45 in 2005-06. There are currently 14 Australian-based or Australian-connected companies involved in Antarctic tourism, offering Antarctic and sub-Antarctic tourist voyages or sightseeing flights, or selling berths aboard Antarctic voyages.
The debate over the merits of Antarctic tourism echoes debates over other wilderness regions. Tourism has allowed many people who might not otherwise have the opportunity, to experience the wonders, and understand the importance of Antarctica. Their experiences have led to a greater recognition in the wider community of the region's importance to the world. However, as more and more people visit the southern regions, the risks of environmental damage increase - wildlife disturbance, trampling of slow growing vegetation, diseases, emergencies and incidents such as oil spills, and rubbish and waste pollution are among the concerns. Although visits are usually short, they occur at a small number of landing sites, which could result in cumulative impacts over time.