Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tourists burn a trail to Australian Antarctic outpost

By Pauline Askin - Reuters Life

An isolated Australian outpost in remote Antarctica has become a popular destination for adventure-seeking tourists, as more tour operators put it on their itinerary for more than just researchers.

The 97-year-old Mawson's Hut, in Cape Denison at Commonwealth Bay, was home to Sir Douglas Mawson and his men during the 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

It had more than 300 visitors in December -- a record number -- with another 100 expected on the last ship that arrives around January 23.

"It's becoming a more popular tourist destination, I think, because it's part of an increasing trend in Antarctic tourism," Bruce Hull, senior environment officer at the Australia's Antarctic Division, told Reuters.

"By the time the fifth ship arrives at Cape Denison between the 20th and 23rd of January, I think the numbers will be about 400 visitors for 2008/09," he added.

This compares with about 260 visitors in 2006/07, and about 200 visitors in 2000/01.

The gruelling sea and icy conditions makes the six-day passage across the Southern Ocean attractive to only the most daring type of traveler. Four companies, from Australia, New Zealand and Germany, go down to Cape Denison and Hull said the ships posed no threat to the environment.

"All activities in Antarctica are subject to an environmental assessment and each tourist expedition is subject to that," he said. "On the whole most tourist ventures are assessed as less than minor or transitory."

Mawson dubbed Cape Denison the "Home of Blizzards" because of its severe climate and the area is only accessible for a ten-week period, between mid-December and mid-February, when weather conditions are less inhospitable.

Chris Perkins, sales and marketing manager for Orion Expedition Cruises which runs trips to Cape Denison, said Mawson's Hut was a part of Australian history that had now become slightly more accessible.

"It's becoming more popular because more operators are providing ways to get down there. Five or ten years ago it was very difficult, only research ships went there," he explained.

"It's one of the most exclusive and difficult places on the planet to get to. Mawson's Hut is part of Australian history, it's preserved in ice basically, it's kind of like a time capsule," Perkins said.

The average age of visitors to Mawson's Hut is about 45-55 years old, and travelers need to be certified fit by a doctor to be able to go there.

There are also strict quarantine guidelines -- tourists are required to wash and disinfect their boots before they go ashore and clothes and baggage must be checked for seeds and other agricultural items.

Since the beginning of the modern Antarctic tourism industry in 1969, the number of tourists in Antarctica has grown from a few hundred to more than 30,000 each year, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

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