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The University for The Changing World

Polar 'ecotourism' destroying Antarctica

It's a funny thing; cruise ships advertising 'educational experiences' or 'nature-based tourism' or even 'ecotourism' in the Antarctic region. In reality, many of these cruise ships are putting these regions under more pressure than ever.

Although tourism has had a short history thus far in the polar regions, the cruise industry has had phenomenal growth over the last two decades. The very thing everyone talks about trying to protect the polar regions from - climate change- is the one thing that has enabled this growth. With melting ice it is now easier for cruise ships and icebreakers to enter territory that was inaccessible 10 years ago.

For AUT University's Associate Professor of Tourism, Dr Michael Lueck, research into the environmental effects of polar tourism has highlighted that some 37,000 tourists now visit the Antarctica every year.

"For many there is a desire to vicariously experience the trials, successes and heroism of Shackleton and Scott's earlier days. 'Last Chance' and 'Doomsday' tourism will bring even more cruises to these areas as people rush to see places 'before they disappear'," he says.

The research of Dr Lueck and others points to significant environmental impact of these ships and yachts.

• Wastewater - An average cruise ship produces 800,000 litres of grey water (sinks, showers, galleys etc) daily.

It contains pollutants such as detergents, faecal coliform bacteria, oil and grease, food wastes, metals, organics, nutrients, medical and dental water and petroleum hydrocarbons

Blackwater is untreated sewage. An average cruise ship produces 114,000 litres of sewage daily. It contains harmful bacteria, pathogens, intestinal parasites and viruses

• Solid waste- An average cruise ship produces 50 tonnes of non toxic solid waste (glass, plastics, wood, cardboard, food water, Styrofoam, cans etc) a week much of which is discharged at sea

• Oily bilge water - 95,000 litres of oily water collects in the bilge during one week. It needs to be flushed and pumped dry regularly. It's flushed into sea and is lethal for marine life

• Air pollution - Diesel engine and sulphur emissions of one cruise ship equal those of 350,000 cars

Between January 2007 and February 2009 five major cruise ship incidents have been logged including three groundings, one collision with an iceberg and one sinking (the Explorer in 2007) in Antarctica. The potential environmental damage caused by leaking oil and fuels into the fragile polar environment can be devastating. In addition to this more ships often need to be sent in to the polar regions to rescue the damaged ones only compounding the problem.

Dr Lueck says the increased numbers of 'regular' cruise ships without strengthened hulls in Antarctic waters means the likelihood of hazardous spills is increasing.

"I can list over 50 known pollution and environmental violations between 2000 and 2009 in polar (Arctic and Antarctic) and sub-polar regions with 31 of those in the last two years.

Even if cruise ships implement more sustainable practices such as advanced wastewater treatment systems, and a total ban on the discharge of liquid and solid wastes, the risk of vessels colliding with icebergs and running aground remains.

"These polar tourists really need to think about what the cruise ship they are on is doing to the very environment they want to experience. Is it really worth it for a few to see it now when in the future there may not be anything to see?"

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