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Tourism influx

Steady increase in visitors at South Pole has USAP weighing alternatives

The South Pole’s most famous visitor didn’t offer a very encouraging description of 90 degrees south when he and his team arrived on Jan. 17, 1912.

“Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here …” Capt. Robert F. Scott recorded in his diary, devastated to have lost the race to the Pole to Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Scott and his companions later perished on their return journey.

These days the South Pole is home to a new U.S. research station — officially called Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station — the third to occupy the spot since 1957. More than 250 people labor there each austral summer, supporting and conducting a dizzying array of scientific research, much of it devoted to astrophysics and unraveling the mysteries of the universe thanks to an environment conducive to such experiments.

But scientists aren’t the only ones attracted to the Pole. A handful of tourists venture south each year, and the number, while modest, has quadrupled in the last five years. The number has climbed steadily from 40 during the 2003-04 season to 164 (which includes repeated visits by pilots) last year, according to statistics kept by South Pole Station Support Supervisor Beth Watson.

“The burden that increasing tourism is placing on station personnel and resources has the U.S. Antarctic Program weighing alternatives for managing the influx of international visitors and looking at how the issue is handled at other USAP facilities such as Palmer Station,” said Peter West, a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The tourist season lasts from roughly early December to late January, a period of about 50 days.

“There’s this block of [time] that we find they’re coming, and they come and they come,” noted Jerry Marty, the National Science Foundation’s representative at the South Pole who oversaw the construction of the new South Pole Station over the last decade, an elevated structure that can house 154 scientists and support personnel. The official dedication was held in January.

“Personally, I think it was a surprise. I think it was to all of us at the station. It’s one of those unknowns that we hadn’t expected,” he said of the rise in visitors.

While perhaps unexpected, the NSF has official policies and procedures in place to handle visitors, or what it calls non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or non-governmental activities (NGAs). The official policy states that, “The U.S. Government is not able to offer support or other service to private expeditions, U.S. or foreign, in Antarctica.”

The South Pole itself is an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA), an internationally recognized designation that provides guidelines for its management.

Tourism surge

“What we’re seeing is not only an increase in tourism but a change in what’s coming,” said Watson, who has worked at the South Pole during 10 of the last 12 years. Instead of the grand adventurers who haul sleds hundreds of kilometers from the coast, she said, many visitors are less experienced, skiing the final 60 miles, or last degree, to the South Pole.

More than 46,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the 2007-08 season, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), most of them arriving by ship to the Antarctic Peninsula from the tip of South America. The USAP’s Palmer Station on the peninsula receives far more visitors, more than 1,500 last year, based on statistics from IAATO. McMurdo Station, the largest of the stations, recorded only 133 visitors from one tourist ship.

The surge in Antarctic tourism in recent years has been well documented. The reasons behind the increase are manifold, from the success of movies like “March of the Penguins” to renewed interest in the polar regions and their prominence in climate change. The ongoing International Polar Year, a two-year science campaign by dozens of countries to explore the Arctic and Antarctic, has also produced quite a few news headlines.

“There’s this renewed interest in polar regions,” Marty said. “We’re seeing that more and more books are being written about the exploration of polar regions. The used books stores are finding it hard to maintain stocks of classics.”

Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), a tour company based in Salt Lake City, offers a number of tour packages, including direct flights to the South Pole and “Ski the Last Degree” adventures, as well as longer expeditions. David Rootes, one of the company’s directors, said in a phone interview, “I suppose we’re benefiting from that general worldwide increase in people doing more tourism … especially tourism to more unusual and extreme destinations.”

ALE until recently had been the only tour operator offering transportation to Pole, working out of the Patriot Hills camp in West Antarctica, with flights originating in Punta Arenas, Chile. A second company, Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI), now offers similar packages, but flies out Cape Town and operates from a Russian research station in East Antarctica.

The Patriot Hills camp can accommodate up to 100 people, though not all are Pole-bound. Many sign up for the ascent up Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s tallest mountain and a necessary feat for those on the Seven Summits circuit to climb the world’s highest peaks on all seven continents.

The only land-based operation that is a member of IAATO, ALE reported 260 clients participated in various multi-day expeditions on the continent during 2007-08. Of that number, ALE supported 92 tourists to the South Pole, 50 of them doing the “Ski the Last Degree” or fly-in trip.

The South Pole trips aren’t cheap. It will cost $46,500 in 2009 to “Ski the Last Degree,” while a seven-day trip, including a flight and four-hour visit to the Pole, will set you back $37,850 for 2009. All four of this year’s fly-in packages from ALE are already fully booked.

Changing times

In the not-too-distant past, the station manager or someone like Marty would greet the visitors, provide a short overview of the station, and then give a brief tour of the facilities. Now, with the tempo of operations at the new station and its demand on Marty and others, additional volunteers sometimes have to greet the visitors

Marty noted many tourists are inquisitive and well versed in polar history and science, keeping the greeters on their toes.

“The program is changing and growing so fast that even some of us that are representatives are caught off guard with a question that we truly can’t answer,” he said. “It’s a far more detailed plethora of questions that we are receiving from the tourists than ever before.”

Rootes said many of the tourists are particularly interested in climate change issues. He said that’s a positive aspect of the new tourism — an opportunity to educate. “We get the chance on the ground to show them what’s happening. … You can really drive home some of these issues. Hopefully the stations benefit from it, too. They’re coming in contact with some of the people helping fund their science.”

Safety concerns

The fly-in trips, by their nature, are structured and easy for the station to manage. On the other hand, expeditions can arrive any time of the day, though a company like ALE addresses these concerns by keeping in communication with the South Pole so that personnel know roughly when to expect an arrival. ALE thoroughly briefs all their expeditions, pilots, and guides on South Pole procedures and provides them with copies of the ASMA maps, according to Rootes.

“The lack of advance knowledge of [some] expeditions arriving at South Pole is problematic in terms of station impact, and in some cases, could be a safety problem in terms of aircraft landings without sufficient knowledge in advance on our part,” explained Polly Penhale, environmental officer for the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, which manages the USAP.

There are also other hazards, such as exposed fuel lines, and sensitive science areas that are off-limits because the experiments require clean air for atmospheric studies or quiet for seismic measurements.

“I’ve noticed an increasing number of planned expeditions in the near future, with the anniversary of important milestones in the race to the Pole,” Penhale added.

Grand adventures

Rootes said that expeditions are indeed on the upswing. Most of the longer trips originate out of Hercules Inlet on the coast, taking about 50 days to complete a one-way ski trip to the Pole. (The current record is 40 days.) ALE then flies the expedition team out, though some opt to kite sail back in less than half the time.

Some seek to claim the dwindling number of South Pole records. For example, Australian Rob Knight hopes at age 23 to become the youngest person to ski alone and unsupported to the South Pole this year. Watson recalled a visit by an expedition of Indian Navy men. “They skied in a line. It was quite impressive to see them come in,” she said.

But it seems the hardcore, professional adventurer is the exception rather than the rule these days.

Rootes conceded that the overall experience of people participating in some of these guided adventures is falling. “There are few real expedition people out there,” he said, but added that the company extensively screens its clients beforehand.

“We want expeditions to succeed in their goals and often advise them to gain more experience if we don’t think they have necessary skills,” he explained. “As a result, we turn away as many as we take down. It’s no point in us charging a fortune to take ill-prepared expeditions down there, if they’re going to peter out halfway through and we have to rescue them. It just causes grief all round.”

Zero impact

The companies are expected to handle all their own logistics, including any search and rescue missions.

Rootes said the ideal is to have zero impact on the USAP or any other nation. The company has its own medical personnel and keeps a cache of supplies and fuel at the South Pole should any tourists get stuck due to weather or other problems.

“We try to be as self-contained as possible,” he said. “If anybody has to [use] any services at the Pole, then we haven’t achieved what we feel like we want to achieve, which is to minimize our impact on the Pole in terms of what they’re doing.”

Government work

ALE is not only in the tourism business. It increasingly plays a part in providing logistic support for national science programs on the continent, its Patriot Hills camp ideally suited to support work in West Antarctica. For instance, scientists with the NSF-funded project POLENET based their fieldwork from Patriot Hills last year.

The company has also worked with the British Antarctic Survey, Chile and even South Korea.

“The service varies from program to program,” Rootes said. “For example, for the Koreans, we provided a complete field support package including flights, snowmobiles, guides, etc. For NSF, we prepared a Herc skiway, provided accommodation, food and fuel, and they did the rest.”

The future

What effect the current worldwide economic downturn might have on the future of Antarctic tourism is uncertain at this time, though Rootes expects another busy season this year, with the company flying three Twin Otters this year rather than just two.

Marty, NSF’s South Pole representative, said the station will continue to evolve to manage the burgeoning tourist industry without neglecting its primary mission of science support and discovery.

“We’re learning from the experiences,” Marty said.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs