Cover up your footprints, birds might fall into them.  

”The Antarctic will change your view of the world forever”

By Outi Rantala / Translation: Richard Foley / Photos: Emilie Beaudon

The March travel article in Ilta-Sanomat, Finland’s largest evening newspaper, capped off a series of articles on travel to the Antarctic. In the piece, Markku Helismaa described the journey to Antarctica as one that “transformed his view of the world”.

A couple of months earlier, I had read diary entries in Helsingin Sanomat written by journalist Tero Repo on a snowboarding trip to Antarctica. A year earlier, Larissa Pelle, writing in the women’s magazine Me Naiset, raved about her encounter with penguins. I couldn’t help asking: Had these trips really changed the way these people see the world?

Antarctic tourism

Some 46,000 travellers visit Antarctica every year. In “A World Without Ice”, Henry Pollack describes vividly the precision with which cruise ship timetables are planned so that passengers get the feeling that their time on the continent is a unique experience. Regulations currently allow a maximum of 100 tourists to land at a time – but not even this restriction guarantees a feeling of isolation if you can see the next ship waiting its turn.

Virtually all travellers to the Antarctic go there on a cruise ship from the southern tip of South America, a trip that takes two days in good weather. Emilie Beaudon, a researcher at the University’s Arctic Centre who has done work on the continent, says that most tourists favor the western coast. During her year on the east coast, Beaudon and her colleagues even saw a Boeing fly overhead: it was carrying wealthy tourists snapping photographs of the expansive white snowscape.

The guides working on Antarctica are natural scientists and historians who have done research there. Their goal is to teach tourists how to act when they encounter wildlife such as birds and seals. According to Beaudon, guides feel guilty to an extent for making tourism to the continent possible; then again, without them visitors’ impact would probably be even greater.

Heroic travellers

It is a time-honored practice in tourism research to classify travellers by the purpose of their journey. One example is Eric Cohen’s classification, in which travellers range from drifters to institutionalized mass tourists.

Drifters do not want to have anything to do with other travellers; they seek out new destinations and unfamiliar surroundings. One might think tourists heading for Antarctica would be drifters – true adventurers.

The experiences described in Ilta-Sanomat are confined to what institutionalized mass tourism has to offer: whatever sense of adventure and uniqueness there is derives mainly from the exotic character of the destination. The article in Helsingin Sanomat goes a good deal further, dubbing snowboarders “heroic travellers” who have the freedom to forge their own paths while everyone else proceeds under the watchful eyes of a guide.

For the tourism researcher today, one thing that is as self-evident as the classifications is the impact on the destinations that each category implies. While the number of heroes is small – making them unlikely to ruin nature where they tread - they nevertheless open up to new groups places previously considered inaccessible.

For instance, the description in Me Naiset of penguins snuggling up to the photographer’s legs for warmth might sound like a very appealing sight to the reader. Never mind that it was just said that the guide had told everyone to stay at least five meters away from the birds.

“Here’s how to get there”

What I see in these articles is not so much views of the world being changed as people giving familiar and traditional accounts of their travels. All three articles end with a description of how the readers themselves can easily visit the destination (provided they have enough money). With their tales of “what the world would be like without human beings”, heroic travellers in fact contribute to the disappearance of such a world.

PS. As an alternative to these sources, I recommend John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of The Mt. Everest Disaster and Göran Kropp’s Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey. They prompt the reader to think of the cost of heroism from the point of view nature, guides and one’s fellow travellers.

The author works as an assistant in tourism at the University of Lapland, where she is writing her doctoral thesis on the use of forests in tourism. International research on tourism is one of the stated strengths of the University.