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Antarctica cruises are more popular than ever. Experts say they need more regulations

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

With the wind-down of COVID-19 restrictions, travel has surged, including to exotic places like Antarctica. More than 100,000 people are expected to visit the southernmost continent this season. That's 40% more than the highest number of visitors seen in past years. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, activists and scientists are concerned about the impact on Antarctica's wildlife and environment.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: One hundred thousand visitors to the nation's fifth-largest continent may not sound like much, but nearly all trips take tourists to one area, the Antarctic Peninsula.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my god. We're in Antarctica, and we're watching penguins. This is...

ALLEN: It's the most northerly part of the continent with coastal areas that are ice-free and teeming with wildlife. Claire Christian is with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a partnership of environmental groups.

CLAIRE CHRISTIAN: And the Antarctic Peninsula is actually - it's experiencing a lot of things all at once. There's an increase in tourism. There's an increase in interest in fishing for Antarctic krill. And the peninsula is one of the fastest-warming areas on the planet.

ALLEN: Only cruise ships with 500 or fewer passengers can land visitors on the continent. Even so, the demand for access to a few dozen sites on the Antarctic Peninsula requires elaborate scheduling, Christian says during the season, several tour groups visit the most popular sites with penguins each day, sometimes with negative effects.

CHRISTIAN: For example, some tourists went off the prescribed path at a visitation site, and they trampled it, and several years later, nothing had recovered. So there is some vegetation in Antarctica that did not recover, so we know that humans can have an impact there.

ALLEN: Christian's coalition, along with scientists and some governments, want the group of nations that oversees Antarctica to take a firmer hand in regulating tourism there. Yu-Fai Leung is a professor at North Carolina State University who studied the impact visitors have on penguins. He says some colonies seem resilient and aren't greatly disturbed by tourist groups, but his research shows, when penguins are nesting, chicks are vulnerable to predators and the elements, and visitors can be a dangerous distraction

YU-FAI LEUNG: If they are forced out of their nest for even for a few seconds, the babies are in big jeopardy because of the predator, but also because of the temperature.

ALLEN: On her trips to the region, Antarctic ecologist Ally Kristan says she's observed tour groups ignoring guidelines, disturbing wildlife and also taking safety risks.

ALLY KRISTAN: There were staff that were putting their hands in the water by actively hunting leopard seals and encouraging guests to do the same, which is a tremendous safety concern.

ALLEN: Leopard seals have been known to attack and sometimes puncture inflatable zodiac boats used by guides. Tours to the Antarctic aren't cheap, ranging from several thousand to as much as $100,000 for a seven-day trip to an emperor penguin colony near the South Pole. Emperor penguins are listed as an endangered species because of fears they could be wiped out with the decline of sea ice linked to climate change. Kristan is concerned about plans by one company to fly visitors by helicopter to a vulnerable emperor penguin colony.

KRISTAN: Even if you fly a helicopter above, you can still be causing negative physiological impacts to this species.

ALLEN: Currently, the most important group overseeing tourism in the Antarctic is the industry itself. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has received mostly good marks for its guidelines aimed at protecting wildlife and the environment. The group's executive director, Gina Greer, expects the number of visitors to the continent will continue to grow, but she dislikes a phrase some use in the travel industry - last chance tourism.

GINA GREER: It shouldn't be for someone - that last chance kind of perspective - when they come home, our goal and our hope is that they come back changed, and they have a better appreciation for the world as well as for the impact that all of us make down there.

ALLEN: The 50 nations that are part of the Antarctic Treaty system have been discussing measures to manage the growth of tourism, possibly limiting activities, the opening of new sites for visitors, even the length of the season. More discussions are planned to the group's upcoming conference later this month in Finland. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.