The appeal of Antarctica was demonstrated last season when expedition tour operators were able to put their ships back into service in November and report good occupancy figures in the first half. This was despite COVID measures being in place in numerous countries. Now, authorities in the Antarctic hubs of Punta Arenas, Ushuaia and Port Stanley have published the numbers of calls for the coming season and are reporting record numbers.
In both Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, authorities expect ship visits in triple digits. For Punta Arenas, around 150 ship visits are expected. And for Ushuaia it is even 540 calls, but the tendency is still increasing. Most of them will be international cruises, as reported by the various media in the countries. But not all of these ships will be heading for Antarctica afterwards. Some will merely sail around the southern tip of South America, the infamous Cape Horn, and head for coastal cities further north.
The Chilean authorities had already registered ninety visits to the three Chilean ports in the south last year. Of these, seventy-four went to Punta Arenas and thirteen to Puerto Williams. The remaining three visits were to Puerto Natales. However, Omicron variants appearing from December made things difficult for operators and some ended their seasons early to protect passengers and crew. However, the regional head of the Chilean Tourism Authority, Ximena Castro, is certain that things will be better next season. Because Chile is working hard to show that the ports they operate in the south of the country are important and also sustainable. “But it remains challenging,” he adds.
In Ushuaia, too, people are rubbing their eyes and hands in view of the figures known so far. For the Argentine city, like many Antarctic gateways, has had tough years. As recently as the 19/20 season, ships visited the capital of Tierra del Fuego 409 times. Most of them were expedition ships that also picked up and brought back their passengers here. The following season saw no tourists and the last one began promisingly, ending with numerous cancellations after the outbreak of the Omicron variants. But Miguel Ramirez, the head of the port authority, is confident that things will be better again this season. To cope with the rush of ships and also as an investment in the future, the authorities have already started to extend and expand the pier in Ushuaia. Currently, about 50 percent, or about 80 meters, of the pier has already been completed and is ready for the start of the season in November. He hopes that the logistical challenges that become apparent at the peak of the season, when up to 18 ships are in port, can be overcome. However, how the local transport companies that have to bring people to the port will manage this is another story.
The authorities in the Falkland Islands also report that around 80,000 guests are expected in Port Stanley if things go normally. This would be an increase on the 19/20 season after two cancelled seasons due to the closure of the islands to tourism by Covid measures. According to the statements, however, these are not only expedition ships on their way to South Georgia, but also cruise ships with several thousand passengers on board. However, Stephanie Middleton, executive director of the Falkland Island Tourist Board, still urges some caution. “A lot depends on the South American ports and whether the ships will actually have the stated numbers of passengers on board,” she says. Time will tell if the season will indeed return to a somewhat more normal world, or if expedition cruises will have to follow their credo once again: “Flexibility is key.”
Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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