Tourist numbers pose green worries in Antarctica

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The number of tourists visiting Antarctica rose by 14 percent to more than 37,000 over the last season, the Indian government said, as concern mounts at their environmental impact on world’s last great wilderness.

An international consultative meeting on the Antarctic Treaty, which concluded on Friday in New Delhi, warned that proper regulation of tourism was vital to protect the area’s fragile eco-system.

Among the measures proposed at the two-week meeting were “discouraging” or “declining” authorization to tour operators to land ships that carry more than 500 passengers, and ensuring no more than one tourist vessel is at a landing site at any time.

“The issue of land-based tourism was discussed at length, which if not regulated may lead to more than a minor or transitory impact on Antarctica,” an Indian government statement issued late on Saturday night said.

The 12-day meeting of nearly 300 delegates, including scientists from 37 nations and organizations, also wanted the number of tourists ashore to be 100 or less at any one time.

The Antarctic Treaty says most tourists visit Antarctica by ship, raising environmental issues. The tourist season runs from November to March.

Environmentalists say global warming is leading to a rapid loss of ice shelves on the continent’s coast, and scientists say a boom in tourism is putting pressure on the region.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 countries whose scientists were active in Antarctica. It now has 46 signatories.

It bans military bases and nuclear and conventional weapons testing and guarantees that scientific research can continue.

At the New Delhi meeting, delegates approved a third research station for India in Antarctica.