PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE — To most, this Patagonian city is the end of the road -the southernmost town in mainland Chile, so remote from the rest of the country that you must pass through Argentina on the thousand-mile drive from Santiago.
But Punta has emerged as a major way station for tourists and travelers headed for the really deep South. When cruise ships and Antarctic research and supply vessels are in port, restaurants, bars, shops, and hotel lobbies fill with foreigners in matching red parkas.
"Ah, wonderful Antarctica," a local tour guide says. "It puts food on our tables and a new car in the driveway."
Antarctic tourism has expanded 10-fold over the past decade, with some 10,000 tourists now visiting each austral summer. By 2003, the industry expects the total to grow to 14,000.
While the tourism explosion is good for Punta Arenas, it may be a double-edged sword for Antarctica itself.
On the positive side, some conservationists say, each shipload that visits the frozen continent represents scores of potential new advocates for the protection of its wildlife and untouched landscape. Many people become lifelong Antarctic conservationists after a single visit, increasing support for the idea that the continent should remain the "common heritage of mankind."
Others worry that the swelling numbers of visitors may be having a negative impact: Alien plants and viruses may be unwittingly introduced, animals disturbed or frightened from their breeding areas, and fragile, slow-growing mosses squashed underfoot.
"You have hundreds of people going to the same handful of sites day after day, year after year," says Beth Clark, director of the Washington-based Antarctica Project, a conservation group. "It only makes sense that there will be an impact on these easily disturbed environments."
Scientific research efforts are also stressed when cruise ships call at tiny research stations. Although such visits are carefully regulated, station personnel say the arrival of 120 people at a 30- or 40-man station can disrupt station life and research work for the entire day.
There's no hard evidence that tourists are impacting penguins and other creatures at heavily visited sites. The handful of studies to date suggest that ozone depletion, illegal fishing, and dramatic climate changes overshadow the effects of a few thousand tourists on short shore landings.
Many scientists working in Antarctica say they think tourists should visit, providing they're coming for the right reasons. Former cruise guides say that those who come simply to put another continent under their belt, or with vague notions of a sea cruise to a novel destination, often don't enjoy the Antarctic experience. But those who come with an interest in seeing the wildlife and pristine environments of polar regions often have the trip of a lifetime.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society