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Oil spills, shipwrecks, dumped waste, a proposed road to the South Pole, an ill-advised nuclear reactor – human interaction in Antarctica has a history of pushing the last great wilderness to the edge of ecological disaster. Now, apart from climate change, which is breaking off great chunks of ice, mass tourism is the greatest threat the continent has ever faced.

For centuries, the pristine region of 14m sq km of ice has evaded the grasp of mainstream tourism. But there is now “congestion” at landing sites as tens of thousands of people, in some of the largest cruise ships, head south.

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Tourism is growing exponentially. Until 1987, fewer than 1,000 people annually travelled to the continent. There were 6,500 in 1992/93, and double that number in 2002/3. This year, more than 28,000 people are expected to come within inches of the kind of wildlife and landscapes normally seen only on film.

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In addition to ship-based tourism, the scale and spread of tourist activities is increasing. Adventurous types can now strap on skis and slash fresh tracks down Antarctica’s uninhabited slopes, take one of the many helicopter rides that clatter daily over breeding penguin colonies, snowboard, climb mountains, kayak or scuba dive.

“Land-based tourism could have severe repercussions because nowhere is out of bounds,” says James Barnes, director of the Antarctic and Southern Oceans Coalition (Asoc), a group of 150 environmental groups. “If tourists start treating Antarctica as an activity theme park, instead of respecting its status in international law as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science, we’ve got a serious problem.”

Click here to read this article, which first appeared in The Guardian in February 2006

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