Antarctic Tourism, human folly

Antarctic Tourism, human folly
2016. Port Locroy, Antartida Port Locroy, Antartida © Javier Benayas

Antarctic Tourism, human folly

After 10 days of intensive research at different enclaves of the peninsula, we reach our last stop, Antarctica’s most visited spot: Port Locroy. Around 20,000 tourists arrive every year to visit this unique enclave. Nowhere else in the whole of Antarctica do queues of boats build up requesting their slot to disembark, in rigorous turns, 50 people. You expect this enclave to be special and unique: a super-Nirvana of a landscape or the biggest gathering of whales or emperor penguins or other surprising Antarctic creatures. But no, it looks like the southernmost museum in the world, although it is really Antarctica’s most important souvenir supermarket. Incredible but true: the most visited place in Antarctica is a shop selling T-shirts at 25 dollars each, sweatshirts at 40, or badges and pins at 10 dollars. Logically, the prices are those of a luxury liner. On the Hesperides there has also been pushing and shoving to disembark, but as the chef, who has given up his place, says “there are only two old houses without much charm”.

The site was a whaling station at the beginning of the last century, but perhaps more importantly it became a British naval base during the Second World War as part of Operation Tabarin to control the movements of the German fleet. This would appear to have been taken from Felipe Boyano’s strange novel “Antarctica 1947. The war that never existed”, which tells of how Hitler used this continent to build a huge submarine base to act as a trampoline for dominating the Southern Hemisphere. It later became a research station for the British Antarctic Survey until 1962 when it was abandoned. It was rebuilt in 1996 and declared Antarctica historic site number 61. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the management by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (www.ukaht.org), a foundation that uses the profits from the shop for the upkeep of five refuges and historic Antarctic sites. A wonderful model to imitate elsewhere. Using the money generated by tourism for conservation, in this case, of the Antarctic cultural heritage.

But having seen so much these days of wonderful landscapes and Antarctic wildlife, it seems incredible that what attracts tourist most is the trade in Antarctic products. At least they don’t sell whale bones, or sealskin sweaters. It is clearly a symptom of the sickness of modern society, as this is not an isolated case. Over the past 10 years, the list of 10 most visited places by tourists has evolved away from natural sites until over half are bases like Port Locroy. The Ukrainian Vernasdsky Base is famous for offering vodka “on the rocks with antarctic ice”, and especially for its free drinks for women tourists who leave their bras as a souvenir. This news item, which appeared in many international media networks, is pushing them up the Antarctic ranking. It is surprising and sad that such sexist ideas should become an attraction to bring tourists to the Antarctic.

I have never thought of tourism as consumer product of landscapes and souvenirs. Even less of photos and selfies. The tourist experience should be lived through all the senses at all times, and should be based on the generating experiences which leave a deep imprint on our senses and on the most affectionate part of our neurones. Each place we visit should remain in our memory for a long time. Unless we live it, we forget it immediately. An experiential tourism rather than a consumer one, and if possible, one which commits to conservation of the cultural and natural heritage we visit.

 

Javier Benayas, Profesor de Ecología, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Colaborador de la Red Española para el Desarrollo Sostenible (REDS)