Across most of Earth, a tourist attraction that attracts 35,000 visitors a year can safely be labelled sleepy.
But when it’s Antarctica, every footstep matters.
Tourism has taken off again, and it’s not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in “adventure tourism”, skydiving and scuba diving.
In this remote, frozen land, tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists.
Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be a long way off.
The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done.
An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules, and neither of those is yet in force.
“I think there’s been a foot off the pedal in recent years,” says Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions.
Antarctic tourism grew from fewer than 2000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08.
The numbers fell to fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12, but the US-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators estimates close to 35,000 people visited during Antarctica’s 2012-2013 tourist season.
It expects slightly more tourists this season, which runs from November through March.
It’s not just the numbers of tourists but the activities that are changing, says Hemmings, who has been part of a delegation representing New Zealand in some Antarctic Treaty discussions.
Today’s tourism is “much more action orientated”, he says. “Now people want to go paragliding, waterskiing, diving or a variety of other things.”
Visitors can also skydive over the frigid landscape, and London-based Henry Cookson Adventures takes two- and three-man submarines to Antarctica.
Hemmings was once asked to advise on a Germany company’s plan to fly gliders over the colossal Transantarctic Mountains to the South Pole, but that project was never carried out.
On Ross Island, a stark black-and-white outcrop of ice on porous, volcanic rock, the active volcano Mt Erebus stands as a warning of the dangers of tourism in this environment.
In 1979, an Air New Zealand plane on a sightseeing tour from Auckland slammed into the mountain, killing all 257 people aboard.
Some of the earliest attempts at skydiving in Antarctica also ended in tragedy. Two Americans and an Austrian died in the same jump in 1997 near the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the geographic South Pole.
Antarctica is not only the world’s coldest, driest and windiest continent, but also the highest. The South Pole is on an icy plateau 2835 meters above sea level and the air is thin.
This is a land of many hazards, not all of them obvious. The dry air makes static electricity a constant threat to electronics and a fire risk when refuelling vehicles.
While Antarctica is as big as the United States and Mexico combined, tourists and scientists mostly keep to areas that aren’t permanently frozen and where wildlife can be found. Those account for less than 2 per cent of the continent.