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How Antarctica’s tourist boom could affect Earth’s ‘last great wilderness’

Antarctica was the last of the seven continents to be discovered, and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that commercial tourism began there. But now, Antarctica has become a popular travel destination, amid growing concerns about the effect that increasing numbers of people could have on its pristine environment. William Brangham reports from Antarctica.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to our continuing series Warnings From Antarctica.

    It was the last of the seven continents to be discovered, and it wasn't until the late 1950s that commercial tourism to the region began. But now it's becoming a popular destination.

    William Brangham and producers Mike Fritz and Emily Carpeaux traveled there and have this report on how tourism has thus far shown little impact on Antarctica's pristine environment, but why there is growing concern about the influx of more and more people.

  • William Brangham:

    Welcome to the tourist boom at the bottom of the world. It's a front-row seat to a remarkable show, majestic humpback whales, frolicking fur seals, an army of curious, charming penguins.

    All that framed by a backdrop that defies description, nothing but miles of mountains, glaciers and icebergs as far a the eye can see. The icy continent of Antarctica is hot. A record 50,000 people came last year. "GQ" magazine recently said now is the time to go. The New York Times said, forget Times Square. Ring in the new year right here.

  • David McGonigal:

    The main attraction of the area is just, it's a place where people are irrelevant. People just don't count. You're coming here purely as a visitor. You have no other impact.

  • William Brangham:

    David McGonigal has led over 120 trips to Antarctica for One Ocean Expeditions, a Canadian tour company promoting environmentally conscious travel.

    These are trips where the scenery comes with equal helpings of science and history. This is definitely not budget travel. It's about $12,000 to $20,000 per person for this two-week cruise. That includes kayaking, hiking, and motorboat excursions by day, white tablecloth meals, and lectures from scientists and naturalists by night.

    McGonigal's job is to keep the roughly 140 passengers, who have come from around the world, safe and satisfied.

  • David McGonigal:

    Some people are just down here for the history, and so you have got to find some historical elements to deliver. Some people just want wildlife. Some people are really just down here for the ice. And it's a matter of juggling that all around and then trying to pull together a plan.

  • William Brangham:

    The journey starts at the southern tip of South America, and through the infamous Drake Passage, home to some of the roughest seas known to man.

    Two days later, the ship finally crosses the Antarctic Circle, one of the southernmost latitudes on Earth.

  • Hermione Roff:

    This sort of place, it deepens your understanding of the world, but also of yourself.

  • William Brangham:

    Hermione and Jon Roff made the trip from Northern England. She's a child and family therapist. He's an Anglican priest.

  • Hermione Roff:

    We wanted to come and see it before either it disappeared or we disappeared.

  • Jon Roff:

    We are probably spending more on this holiday than we have spent on our holidays in our entire lives.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    Is that right?

  • Jon Roff:

    Yes, I think so.

  • William Brangham:

    Yusuf Hashim retired almost 20 years ago. He was a marketing director for Shell Oil in Malaysia. He convinced nearly 50 of his friends and family to join him on this trip.

    So, what are you doing here on the bottom of the Earth?

  • Yusuf Hashim:

    Spending my children's inheritance.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    Do they know that this is what is happening?

  • Yusuf Hashim:

    Yes, that's one of them over there. So it's bonding time. I have been here four times now, and I will never tire of looking at icebergs and penguins and the scenery. It makes it all worth living.

  • William Brangham:

    In addition to all the wildlife, the ship visits historic sites, like this abandoned British scientific base from the 1950s, as well as active bases. Eleven scientists from Ukraine work and live here year-round.

    And the tourists can sample the homemade whisky made with glacial ice at one of the southernmost drinking holes in the world. But visiting Antarctica until relatively recently was a trip no human had ever made.

  • Katie Murray:

    It's absolutely incredible that our seventh continent, our newest continent, was discovered less than 200 years ago, changing what we understand about the globe today.

  • William Brangham:

    Katie Murray is a polar historian who works for One Ocean, teaching visitors about the earliest Antarctic explorers, like Britain's James Cook, or the ill-fated race to the South Pole in 1911 between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, or perhaps the most famous Antarctic adventure story, Ernest Shackleton's dramatic endurance voyage several years later.

    We talked with Murray in the ship's movie theater.

  • Katie Murray:

    It's quite incredible, actually, that 100 years after the Heroic Age, just over 100 years since Scott and the polar party died on their return from the South Pole, and you have got these great stories of endurance and suffering, we can now come to Antarctica effectively for fun.

  • William Brangham:

    This record number of tourists coming here has been growing steadily since the 1980s, when just a few thousand made the trip every year.

  • David McGonigal:

    And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Soviet fleet of ice-strengthened vessels became available, and people realized they could actually charter those and bring those down. That was what started the whole rush in the 1990s.

  • William Brangham:

    Today, more and more tour companies are rolling out new fleets of luxury ice-strengthened ships capable of navigating the icy waters here. But the arrival of more and more visitors to Antarctica is also leading to concerns about their impact on this pristine ecosystem.

  • Claire Christian:

    Antarctica is really the world's last great wilderness. There's no permanent human population there.

    It's a continent that is for nature, and I think that's a really important symbol, because so many other places where human civilization has spread to, we have destroyed the environment.

  • William Brangham:

    Claire Christian is the executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. She believes tourism has so far been a force for good, galvanizing people to care about a continent that is thousands of miles from their homes.

    Right now, tourists only visit the Antarctic Peninsula, because it's the most accessible and most scenic part of the continent, but Christian notes this is also a region stressed by climate change. So, how many more visitors can the region handle?

  • Claire Christian:

    Right now, there may not — it may not be able to — we may not be able to see a lot of effects. But, if you suddenly have a sharp increase in the number of people who are visiting a small colony every day, that might start to have an impact.

  • William Brangham:

    Remember, Antarctica has no government. No nation runs this place. And, currently, all tour groups are governed by a strict, but voluntary set of regulations.

    For example, only one ship at a time is allowed at designated sites. There are rules about how many people can go ashore and how close they can get to wildlife. One Ocean Expeditions mandates all tourists vacuum and clean their gear before going ashore, so that no foreign seeds or dirt end up on land. All returning gear gets a similar scrub every day.

    But invasive species have already taken hold. This moss is from the Arctic. A trace amount somehow made the 12,000-mile trip. And there are also concerns about wildlife. Two of the three penguin species on the peninsula are in decline. Researchers believe it's being driven in part by a warming environment.

    Given that, are all these humans an added stress? You see all that reddish brown material on the ground behind me? That's all penguin guano, or penguin poop. And not only does it make this whole area have a very unique aroma, but scientists have been measuring the stress hormones that are released into guano at places where tourists show up and at places where tourists never go.

    And for the penguins so far, at least, it doesn't seem that the presence of tourism is causing them any problems.

    Andrea Raya Rey is a conservation biologist based in Ushuaia, Argentina, a city where the bulk of all Antarctic tourism begins.

    Raya Rey says that, while tourism is showing little impact thus far, she worries about the estimated 40 percent growth in the industry.

  • Andrea Raya Rey:

    The tourism puts an extra pressure on the ecosystem. One ship, it's OK, two, OK, three. But 10 at the same time pointing at them, it's stressful.

  • William Brangham:

    It's also a concern shared by those within the tourism industry.

  • David McGonigal:

    It's going to be more a matter of just, how do you manage the numbers when there's just nowhere left to go and you have got more ships coming down?

  • William Brangham:

    As for visitors like Jon and Hermione Roff, they feel incredibly lucky to have seen the wonders of Antarctica up close. But they admit that they are worried about their own impact.

  • Jon Roff:

    There is a growth of tourism that does leave a mark. However careful we are, it leaves a mark. And so it's a very difficult balance. I mean, I'm really thrilled that we have come, but I hope not too many more people will come.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    For now, though, there is no sign that this tourist boom is slowing.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham on the Antarctic Peninsula.

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