The cost of cruising to Antarctica is likely to rise next month with the introduction of new regulations that will compel ships visiting the region to use less polluting fuels.
From August 1, they will be banned from burning or carrying heavy fuel oil and must instead use marine gas oil, which is cleaner but considerably more expensive.
The change, which could cost large-scale tour operators several million pounds a season, has prompted some cruise lines to withdraw from the region, and visitor numbers are expected to fall to their lowest in almost a decade.
“The ban will reduce the number of voyages next season available aboard larger ‘cruise-only’ ships – those carrying more than 500 passengers, with no opportunities to go ashore in Antarctica,” said Steve Wellmeier, executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (Iaato). He confirmed that Holland America and Azamara Cruises will continue to offer cruise-only sailings, but Crystal, Princess, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania have dropped Antarctica from their brochures.
Last season, 33,824 cruise passengers visited the region, 14,373 of whom were carried on large ships. That latter figure is forecast to fall by 66 per cent this season to just 4,896, while overall numbers are expected to fall to 2003/04 levels.
The average cost of a two-week Antarctic cruise had already risen from £3,500 per person in 2009 to about £5,500 next season, and the reduction in capacity is likely to drive prices higher. It also comes as interest in Antarctica increases ahead of the centenary, in 2012, of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.
The new regulations are being introduced by the International Maritime Organisation to protect the environment in the event of a fuel leak. They follow the sinking of the MS Explorer off the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007. Most smaller expedition ships already use marine gas oil and their itineraries will be largely unaffected.
Justin Francis, managing director of Responsibletravel.com, a tour operator that specialises in environmentally friendly holidays, supported the changes. “The threat of dire consequences from a major oil spill in the region is great, and for this reason I welcome the ban,” he said. “I would urge the cruise industry to dedicate time and resources into researching and pursuing greener fuels.
“A trip to Antarctica has always been a ‘once in a lifetime’ holiday, one that many people save long and hard for. The ban on heavy fuel oils may make the saving period longer, but I’m sure visitors would agree that it will be worthwhile for them as well as for the future of this pristine and delicate region.”
Tourism to Antarctica began in the Fifties and increased sharply during the Nineties. In 1991, 4,698 travellers visited the region, rising to a peak of 46,265 during the 2007/08 season. Since then, visitor numbers have declined steadily, mostly as a result of the global economic downturn. Last season, just 1,500 Britons visited the region on Iaato-affiliated ships.
Next month will also see the establishment of the North American Emission Control Area, and the introduction of stringent controls on the emissions of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides by ships in the region. The changes, which come fully into force in 2012, will compel operators of cruise ships sailing through the area to use costly low-sulphur fuels, which is likely to result in increased prices for passengers and the dropping of destinations from itineraries.
Carnival UK, which operates 11 cruise lines, predicts that the changes will add up to £45 million to its annual costs, and Fred Olsen, the small-ship specialist, has said it might stop running its solitary North American cruise in 2012.