Rise in Chinese tours to Antarctica causes alarm
As Antarctica becomes a "hot" destination for Chinese tourists, calls are mounting for Beijing to draw up regulations governing tours to the sensitive region.
When a group of more than 100 mainlanders visited the Antarctic Great Wall Station on King George Island close to Chile over the Lunar New Year holiday, the research installation was barely able to cope while scientists went about their business, Xinhua reported.
China is becoming one of the fastest growing markets for Antarctic tourism, analysts say. More than 2,300 mainlanders - some of them willing to pay up to 500,000 yuan (HK$635,000) - made the journey to the remote southern continent between November 2011 and March 2012.
"As rising numbers of Chinese travel to Antarctica, the Chinese government should issue regulations to help protect its sensitive and unique environment," said Dai Bin, director of the China Tourism Academy.
Beijing has not issued by-laws for Antarctic tourism. The Tourism Law introduced last year is more a guideline on how tourists should behave while overseas. It does not include specific offences with penalties, and makes no mention of Antarctic travel.
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which China signed in 1983, recognises tourism as a legitimate activity and touches upon environmental protection. However, it does not provide detailed guidance on tourist behaviour, nor does it compel treaty partner countries to minimise the impact of their tourists.
Zhang Yifan, a freelance travel writer, joined a tour of 200 mainland tourists during the Lunar New Year holiday last year that counted many businessmen among the passengers. Depending on the length of the tour, an all-expenses-paid, one-week to two-week trip costs between 100,000 yuan and 500,000 yuan.
"I don't think mainland tourists behaved differently compared with those from other countries," Zhang said. "Anyone would get excited seeing wild penguins in their native Antarctic habitat. I didn't see anyone throwing rubbish or spitting. The only problem was that sometimes tourists got a bit closer to photograph animals than the tour guide had advised them."
Dai, the tourism expert, said mainland tourists had as much right as others to visit Antarctica. What mattered was that all tourists minimised their impact on the environment and did not interrupt scientific research.
"It's understandable that we all admire rare animals, but Antarctica is not a campus," Dai said.