United States wants limits to Antarctica Tourism

The Obama administration is pushing to protect Antarctica’s fragile environment by imposing mandatory limits on the size of cruise ships sailing there and the number of passengers they bring ashore.

U.S. diplomats will propose amending the 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty. The move would seek to mandate, under international law, the current voluntary restrictions on tourism. The goal is to “minimize the likelihood of marine oil spills” in the Antarctic and “ensure that tourism is conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

The new U.S. proposal would require signatories to the pact to ensure that Antarctic tour operators bar ships with more than 500 passengers from landing sites, restrict landings to one vessel at a time per site and limit passengers on shore to 100 at a time. It would mandate a minimum of one guide for every 20 tourists while ashore, according to the documents.

Limiting tourist access to the continent has taken on urgency because of a surge in visits and recent cruise ship accidents, including two groundings in the just-finished 2008-09 season and the highly publicized sinking of a vessel in November 2007.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators says visits have risen from 6,700 in the 1992-93 season to 29,500 in the 2006-07 season and 45,213 in 2008-09.

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