The COVID pandemic continues to dominate much of public life worldwide in 2021. This is despite major vaccination campaigns and numerous attempts at opening up in many countries. And while in some countries a fourth wave is already rampant, in others not even the second or third are really over. These include some countries in South America, including Argentina. The country had sealed itself off at the beginning of the pandemic and no longer allowed any foreign tourism, including the 20/21 Antarctic season. But now the government has decided to reopen the important sector.
By decree, it was announced that from October 20, 2021, “the gradual and safe resumption of the activity of Bioceanic and Antarctic cruises are planned within the framework of the provisions of this administrative decision.” The decision also gives the provincial government of Tierra del Fuego and all other provinces and national authorities the right to implement operational plans that have been or will be drawn up by the port authorities. De facto, this would open the Antarctic season from October 20 and Ushuaia and Puerto Madryn, the two departure ports for expedition voyages, can go ahead with their plans.
For the provincial government of Tierra del Fuego and its capital Ushuaia, the news from Buenos Aires, more than 3,200 kilometres away, is good. For weeks ago, authorities from the port, airport, tourism and representatives of the provincial government had already jointly decided to put together a package of measures for an Antarctic season 21/22. Cancelling the season again would have been a major economic blow to the entire region. It is too dependent on the tens of thousands of tourists who set off from here on their journey to see penguins and co. Before the pandemic, more than 70,000 people had visited Antarctica, most of them from Ushuaia. It is now up to the authorities to draw up plans on how to meet the government’s demands to ensure the safest and smoothest possible operation and treatment of the guests.
At least the winter season had proven to be very lucrative for Ushuaia, as we learned from a reliable source. Due to extreme warm spells in parts of Argentina, there was a lack of snow for winter sports. In contrast, Ushuaia had recorded a very snowy winter. Coupled with an above-average vaccination rate compared to the rest of the country and a well-implemented package of protective measures, the resort has seen high numbers of winter tourists.
So everything would be ready for the start of a new Antarctic season? Not quite, as a closer look reveals some question marks as to whether the long-awaited launch will actually happen on October 20. This is because the government’s decision states that the launch may be made “within the framework of the health measures in force at the time of implementation” and “subject to the recommendations established for this purpose by the National Health Authority”. This applies to plans to be prepared by provincial governments and their agencies. And this resolution also applies to operators: all must comply with the measures and recommendations of the federal government and the National Institutes of Health in effect as of October 20. And this is exactly the crux of the matter: Since no one can predict exactly what the situation in Argentina and also in the home countries of the guests and ship crews will be like at this point in time, planning becomes enormously difficult for everyone involved. For one thing, the past few months have shown that the only constant in the entire pandemic is its inconsistency.
Moreover, the government in Buenos Aires has not exactly had a lucky hand vis-à-vis airlines and countries with some of the decision taken. Although they had been intended to protect the population, they had caused a great deal of resentment among organisations, countries and also among their own people. In particular, the quota system for air travellers and the de-facto landing ban for foreign aircraft had caused a lot of international criticism and showed that the situation still is variable. Whether Antarctic tour operators are willing to take their guests to the beauty of Antarctica under these circumstances will become clear in the coming weeks. The first operators have already made adjustments to their timetables in advance.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
Link to the decision of the Argentine Government (in Spanish)
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