Province seeks increased share of peninsula tourism market

Antarctic Non-government Activity News, 23 May 2001

The southern Chilean Province of Magallanes sees the planned up-grade of Chile's Tentiente Rodolfo Marsh airfield on King George Island (KGI) as the key to increasing its share of the growing Antarctic Peninsula tourism market. Reliable sources in Chile have told ANAN, however, that provincial officials may be over-estimating the benefits involved, saying that in their view the up-grade is modest, and that no significant increase in tourism numbers can be expected to result from it alone in the near future.

Few details are currently available about the up-grade proposed at Marsh. It is known that the compacted gravel runway is to be lengthened minimally beyond its present 1,292 m and that the work is expected to take two seasons with completion currently due prior to the austral summer of 2003-04. Whether air navigation facilities there will also be up-graded to support aircraft operations is, however, unknown at this time.

According to a recent report published in the U.S. newspaper The Christian Science Monitor, politicians in Magallanes see the work planned on KGI as the key to the introduction of regular on time air services between the regional capital of Punta Arenas and KGI that would enable effective fly-cruise operations to be introduced.

The article quotes Magallanes Province Governor, Jaime Jelincic, as saying that he believes that the runway up-grade could see thousands of tourists flying to and from KGI from the provincial capital, and that development of a port on KGI near the airfield would be the next logical step. ANAN has been told, however, that development of such a port is not being considered in any way at this time by Chilean Antarctic authorities.

Suitably up-graded airfield facilities at Marsh could see tourist-ship passengers flown across the often stormy Drake Passage to and from tourist ships that would operate from KGI, thus saving three to four days travel on each voyage. In theory, such an operation could reduce tour company costs and increase the number of tourists visiting the region each summer as many ship's conducting eight- to ten-day Ushuaia-Peninsula voyages could, for example, undertake three or sometimes four, extra voyages a season.

There has been considerable interest, and some attempts, over the last decade to use both Marsh and the Argentinian airfield at Marambio on Seymour Island for fly-cruise operations (ANAN-42/01, 28 February 2001 and ANAN-17/03, 15 March 2000). To date, however, weather and other conditions have often intervened to deter such operations and only if air navigation facilities are significantly up-graded at Marsh would it be possible to contemplate sufficiently reliable, regular flights, of the type needed.

Governor Jelincic and other Magallanes officials are believed to see ship-linked flights into KGI as the only way to break what was described in the Monitor's article as the current strangle hold Ushuaia, Argentina, has on tourism to the Antarctic Peninsula area. In recent years up to twenty tour-ships have operated over 120 voyages from Ushuaia to the Peninsula and Scotia Arc region each season with close to 13,000 tourists to the southern-most continent passing through the port (ANAN-25/02, 5 July 2000).

Ushuaia's attraction to tour operators was enhanced in 1998 when a new airport with a 3,800 m runway capable of handling Boeing-747 sized aircraft was opened. Such aircraft have been used on occasion to fly tour ship passengers to Ushuaia from North America, something that would not have been possible at the city's original airport (ANAN-17/07, 15 March 2000).

Punta Arenas, Magallanes' capital, was the main port for tourist voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula region up until the early 1990s. Over the past decade, however, Ushuaia has taken over that role primarily because it is closer to the continent, ships operating from there being able to reach the area around the South Shetland Islands in a day and a half, half the time required for the voyage there from Punta Arenas.

During the last two austral summers, Punta Arenas has seen as few as 300 passengers from small- to medium-sized Antarctic tour ships pass through. The decline in Antarctic tourist traffic over the past decade has seen Punta Arenas slip from first to fourth in the South American region as an Antarctic tour ship gateway after Ushuaia, Buenos Aires and Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Schedules for those ships released for the 2001-02 season suggest that that numbers will fall even further, although two one-day visits by the 1,266-passenger ship Ryndam on its way from and to the Peninsula region will boost overall Antartic-related figures (ANAN-47/01, 23 May 2001).

Air and tour operator Adventure Network International and the small Chilean regional air line La linea aerea de la Patagonia (DAP) fly tourists to Antarctica from the Punta Arenas airport, however, the numbers involved in those operations are only in the order of 150-200 people each season (ANAN-28/02, 16 August 2000 and ANAN-17/03, 15 March 2000). In addition, tourist overflights of the Peninsula operate from the Magallanes capital, although the total number of tourists that take part in them each season is unknown (ANAN-47/04, 23 May 2001).