Dark COVID-19 clouds over Antarctic season | Polarjournal
Last year in Antarctica, nearly 55,000 people landed on its shores or on adjacent islands. The increasing demand also attracted more and more operators and their brand new ships, who want to present a unique nature and wildlife to their guests. But a small virus has completely changed the situation. Photo: Michael Wenger

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken tourism industry around the world. The polar travel sector was not spared from the small virus this summer either, leaving the lucrative market virtually completely collapsed. Lockdowns and national entry bans to protect local populations were slowly lifted after weeks and months; too late, however, to prevent the economic damage. Now the start of the season in the southern hemisphere is just around the corner and the virus is still raging almost checked around the world. It has already cast its shadow on Antarctic tourism and initial measures and decisions have been taken that show that this coming season, nothing will be as it used to be.

While just over four months ago the mood in the polar travel industry resembled a goldrush atmosphere and the tourists had been amazed amidst icebergs and penguins, now, four months before the start of the new season 2020-21, much is still open. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, as the still increasing number of infections shows. It is true that many countries have relaxed their protection measures. But the virus is still raging, especially in the countries that are important for Antarctic tourism. The US, which for long has been the number one in the number of Antarctic tourists, is reaching sad record levels with its new infections, and there seems to be no end in sight. After initial successes in fighting the virus, China, the number 2, is also struggling with sudden infections, both locally or regionally, but still rising.

Mask carrying obligation yes or no? Distance in the planes yes or no?

And in many European countries, the crisis is still there, and those countries that are usually considered the starting point for Antarctic voyages (UK, Germany, Spain) are still very shaky with regional new outbreaks. The aviation industry, which is supposed to bring Antarctic tourists to Antarctica’s entry gates, may have invited to fly again, but the protection concepts are uneven and unsettling rather than reassuring, according to a Washington Post report. Mask carrying obligation yes or no? Distance in the planes yes or no? Are flights even on? What happens in the event of another outbreak?

The COVID situation in Ushuaia looks a little more relaxed than in Buenos Aires, where everything is still closed. But international guests come virtually all via Argentina’s capital or Chile to the southernmost city in the world. Photo: Michael Wenger

Gates to Antarctica still closed

The countries that are either considered to be gateways to Antarctica or manage sectors in Antarctica also vary in their responses and measures to the new reality. In Argentina, for example, many of the provinces, including Tierra del Fuego with Ushuaia, are on their way to opening up. No new infections have been detected in Ushuaia for more than a month. But the capital Buenos Aires is still in complete lockdown at least until mid-July, as the numbers here were still rising. Foreign guests are not yet received and the government has not yet announced when this will be the case again.

In Chile, the situation is not particularly intoxicating. In addition to the still increasing number of infections, COVID unrest is also commonplace in the capital Santiago.

Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, from where departures to Antarctica are made, have still closed their borders to most foreign visitors. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a few weeks ago that his country would keep its borders closed until early next year. Talks are under way with New Zealand about a “Tasmanian bubble” in which tourists from the respective countries are allowed to travel without restrictions. But nothing is final yet. New Zealand has not yet relaxed its entry restrictions. At the same time, both countries have announced that their Antarctic stations will not receive visits from outside. Other countries have made similar announcements.

South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, two of the highlights of an Antarctic voyage, have already announced measures to prevent the virus from entering their small communities. Although the influence on the experience should be influenced as little as possible, the measures are drastic. Photo: Michael Wenger

The upcoming Falkland Island tourist season could be “very tough and very late, if at all”

MLA Mark Pollard, Falkland Islands

On the other hand, the Falkland Islands a few days ago declared that all passengers arriving from abroad must be quarantined for 14 days and ships must only call if they have been at least 10 days away from a port and do not have guests on board showing signs of infection. In an earlier interview at the end of May, MP Mark Pollard said that he believed the start of the tourism season would be “very tough and very late, if at all.” South Georgia has also adapted its entry requirements to the new situation and has already published them. For example, all ships must undergo a 3-part assessment procedure with health certificates and contact tracing before reaching Grytviken. In addition, the museum, post office and King Edward Point are closed to visitors. However, there should be a “remote-controlled” service for postal services and souvenirs.

The IAATO and its members are preparing for a completely new Antarctic season and are trying to gather as much information as possible with a dedicated COVID task force to develop appropriate protection measures. The protection of people and the environment is at the heart of the association. It is hoped that the first results will be presented soon. Photo: Michael Wenger

Tour operators are working on measures

The ship operators and tour operators of the Antarctic voyages are currently working hard to develop protection concepts and measures. To this end, a task force has been set up by the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators). Many experiences have already been gained during the Arctic season and individual measures are expected to be adopted in the coming Antarctic season. However, there is still a lack of information, as much also depends on the individual countries, in particular Argentina and Chile. But even now, individual decisions or measures are known from the operator side. Polar Latitudes, for example, has announced that it will not be able to operate this season because they do not see any protective measures in line with the quality of their travel products and cannot rule out the potential of a possible outbreak on board. On the other hand, the Dutch shipping company Oceanwide Expeditions has published the first technical and conceptual protection measures on its ships. Hurtigruten and Ponant have also presented the first protection concepts for their ships. But how they will prove themselves in the reality of Antarctica is still unclear.

The current situation is also not easy for the expedition teams and ship crews who are most in contact with the guests on board. On the one hand, the fear of infection and the consequences of it is still omnipresent. At the same time, no one is interested in losing another polar travel season and experiencing such a big financial loss once again. That’s why many hover between hope and fear in a kind of limbo. What is certain is that the 2020-21 season will be a new reality in the polar travel sector and that the virus will have an impact on the white wilderness even without direct contact with Antarctica.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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