Tourism: Travel industry seeks to open up last great wilderness

Antarctica, the world's last unexplored continent, may also be about to become its next frontier for tourism. Environmentalists fear for its delicate ecosystem. Our correspondent in Sydney assesses the risks.
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The Independent Online
In the biggest reassessment of its operations in Antarctica since the end of the Cold War, Australia has proposed closing two of its three research bases on the continent and turning them into summer bases for adventure tourists.

Britain, New Zealand and Russia already allow tourists to visit Antarctica, but only by ship. There are occasional tourist flights over the continent from Australia and New Zealand, but up to now no tourists have been allowed to camp there because of fears for the security of penguin rookeries and other features of Antarctica's delicate ecosystem.

Now, Australia's Antarctic science advisory committee, a government body, has recommended that Australia should consolidate the scientific research done at its Casey and Mawson bases at the third base, Davis, and set up a regular air link between Australia and the Davis base, leasing the other two to other countries or allowing tourists to go there on strictly controlled expeditions.

Australia is one of seven countries with territorial claims to Antarctica, with Argentina, Britain, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway.

The Australian claim covers about 43 per cent of the continent, almost as much as Australia itself. Its operations in Antarctica reflect the Cold War era, when countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 were keen to protect their patches from encroachment by others.

But this has been an expensive business. Australia's three bases are about 1,000km apart from each other, each with its own transport system and infrastructure. These logistics consume two-thirds of Canberra's Antarctic budget of about A$60m (pounds 26m) a year, leaving only one-third for the bases' real purpose: research on world climate change, sea life, glaciers, space physics and human impact on Antarctica itself over the 100 years since a British expedition from Australia was the first to spend a winter on the continent in 1898-99.

The committee's report, Australia's Antarctic Programme Beyond 2000, argues that the Cold War mentality should give way to a more co-operative approach, which, with Australia sharing logistics and supply lines with neighbouring Antarctic countries, would leave more money for research. The Australian government is likely to accept the recommendations.

The report's recommendation on increasing access for tourism is likely to be controversial, especially with Greenpeace and other environmental groups. It sits oddly with Australia's attitude eight years ago, when it opposed, on environmental grounds, an international convention allowing Antarctica to be opened up to minerals exploration for the first time.

Mining was forbidden under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which also banned military operations on the continent.

Australian officials are stressing that the proposal is a response to growing demand among tourist operators to visit Antarctica, and the need to meet such pressure with strict environmental controls.

Greenpeace opposes Britain and the United States landing aircraft in Antarctica, and would raise an outcry if Australia proposed adding an airstrip of its own.

The continent remains one of the world's last wonders for scientists and visitors alike. Its ice, in which fossils of apes resembling humans have been found, comprises more than two-thirds of the world's fresh water. Layers of its unmelted snow date back 1 million years. Its glaciers are populated by seals and penguins.

Underneath all this are thought to lie potential riches in the form of iron ore, coal, uranium and oil which could be the flashpoint for environmental battles in years to come.

As the Australian government contemplates what to do about its report, an Australian team of three men will embark today on the third day of an expedition to be the first Australians to walk unassisted 1,400km to the South Pole.