Economic downturn puts freeze on Antarctic tourism

Mon Jan 4, 2010 8:27am EST
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By Pauline Askin

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.   Continued...

<p>Participants of Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition stand at a base camp in Patriot Hills, January 2, 2010. REUTERS/Alexander Blotnitskiy</p>