Ice Rescue Sparks Antarctic Tourism Debate

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The challenging rescue operation launched after a Russian ship became trapped in Antarctic pack ice last month shows the inherent risks facing the frozen continent's burgeoning tourist industry, experts say.

Antarctica is a cold, harsh place with vast changing landscapes and uncovered mysteries underneath the ice. Why wouldn't we go there?
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Antarctica represents one of the last frontiers for adventurous travellers, an icy wonderland of glaciers, emperor penguins and seemingly endless white expanses.

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But, as those aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy found out, blizzards, icebergs and treacherous seas are also a fact of life at one of the most remote locations on Earth, where help is often thousands of kilometres (miles) away.

"It does indeed serve as a reminder that it's an extreme environment that we're dealing with, whether it's scientific expeditions going down there or tourism cruises," Daniela Liggett, a specialist in Antarctic tourism regulation at New Zealand's Canterbury University, told AFP.

Tourist numbers in Antarctica have grown from less than 5,000 in 1990 to about 35,000 a year, according to industry figures. Most travel by sea, some paying in excess of $20,000 for a luxury cabin in the peak period from November to March.

There is also a healthy market for sightseeing flights, despite the loss of an Air New Zealand DC-10 in 1979 which crashed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 on board.

The first recorded tourist ship was an Argentine vessel, Les Eclaireurs, that made the voyage with 100 paying passengers in 1958.

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Since then, concerns have centred on tourists' potential impact on the untamed wilderness and the difficulty rescuers would face reaching a ship if it hit serious trouble in the freezing waters.

"What's unique to the Antarctic is that it's very remote and if something happens to a bigger ship then it will be almost impossible to rescue all the passengers in a timely fashion," Liggett said.

With conventional rescue services so far away, the task of helping stricken vessels often falls to the scientific missions, disrupting their carefully planned research programmes.

French Polar Institute director Yves Frenot was furious last week that French, Chinese and Australian ships in Antarctica were diverted from scientific work for the Shokalskiy rescue.

"There's no reason to place Antarctica off-limits and to keep it just for scientists, but this tourism has to be monitored and regulated so that operators can be sure of getting help if need be," he told AFP.

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