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ON BOARD THE ORION, Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica, Jan 4 (Reuters Life!) - The economic downturn has frozen tourists' enthusiasm to travel to one of Australia's most remote and inhospitable Antarctic outposts with tourism operators reporting a sharp downturn in bookings.
In January 2009 the Australian Antarctic Division reported a record five cruise ships carrying over 400 visitors visited the site of the Mawson's Huts in Cape Denison, base of one of the most significant expeditions in Antarctic history.
However, only one cruise company, Australia-based Orion Expedition Cruises, was expected to visit the remote outpost in January this year, carrying about 96 visitors.
"We've had a slower year based on the recession. That means Antarctica hasn't been in the front of people's minds," Chris Perkins, sales and marketing manager for Orion Expedition Cruises, told Reuters on board the polar cruiser The Orion.
Commercial Antarctic tourism dates back to the late 1960s but interest surged in the late 1980s, leading to a wide range of tourist and adventure activities -- and prompting a list of regulations to protect the pristine Antarctic environment.
Orion Expedition Cruises runs an 18-day trip that visits the historic wooden Mawson's Huts, set up by geologist Douglas Mawson who led an Australasian Antartic expedition from 1911 to 1914, as well as Port Martin, the site of 100 grounded icebergs.
But if the tag price of between $19,000 to $40,500 is not a deterrent then the idea of spending seven days crossing the grueling Southern Ocean to visit one of the world's most inhospitable regions can be off-putting to many travelers.
Some, however, are determined to make the trip to Cape Denison in east Antarctica, with the voyage best undertaken in the southern hemisphere summer between late December and March.
"As far as the economic climate goes, that goes up and down, but I'm getting older and that means I've only got a limited time to do all the things I've wanted to do," Fred Pernat, a tourist from Melbourne, Australia, told Reuters on board The Orion.
"I suppose I've got a bucket list and coming to Antarctica is one of the things I've always wanted to do."
Rising tourist numbers have sparked a debate on the pros and cons of commercial visitors to the remote wilderness of east Antarctica which is far less accessible than the Antarctic Peninsula that is a two-day sea trip from South America.
But while the risk of contamination to the environment is always a possibility, tourism to the area is bound by strict guidelines set out in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
Professor Pat Quilty of the University of Tasmania says tourism is not doing as much damage to Antarctica as research stations, which can be occupied by up to 1,000 people in summer.
"It's very clear that whatever humanity does is going to have some effect. The question is whether it's transitory," said Quilty.
In order to minimize the impact of tourism in the area, Orion Expeditions has designed its five star cruise ship to operate on low fuel and carry a mini-decimalization plant which reduces the amount of water used and carries all "grey water" or sewage back to port for disposal.
"We don't dump anything. Nothing goes over the side," said Perkins.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith