The conclusion, by someone who has been there recently, is a cautious yes, and this is supported by the FCO's head of polar regions Jane Rumble who endorses responsible tourism to Antarctica, and adds the encouragement to “do what you can to preserve it”.
I, too, am in favour of responsible tourism to Antarctica, and I'm very aware that unless people know about the polar regions they aren't likely to put preserving them high on their priority list, but I do have some reservations about how Antarctic tourism is evolving.
I worry about the growth of activity tourism.
There is a difference between the impact of a
tourist spending a couple of hours ashore taking photographs in a tightly controlled area near a landing beach and the impact of one who is camping or engaging in the various adventure activities often offered. As far as I am aware the activities offered by the current operators are generally well managed, but the market pressures do have a tendency to encourage operators to offer more and more 'extreme' options each year.
I'm concerned about Antarctica becoming just another notch on the luxury tourist belt – we've done the Safari in Africa, and the Barrier Reef and the Amazon, where next? One aspect of this market is the gradual move to both bigger and more luxurious boats which provide big cruise ship style comforts but do result in significantly higher price tags. I also have major reservations about the big boats that have started to head further south adding South Georgia and the Antarctic onto longer South American cruise itineraries. So far the only problems with tourist boats have been with small boats where it has been feasible to provide rescue by other small boats in the area. At some point a 500-berth (or bigger) ship will have a problem, and providing assistance to the 700 (or more) people on a boat of that size is going to be problematic.
Having voiced concerns about boats around Antarctica, I also need to voice concerns about the emergence of fly-cruises which allows visitors to cross the Drake Passage without getting their feet (or anything else) wet. There must be more environmental impact in flying down to the Antarctic Peninsula from Punta Arenas or Ushuaia before joining the boat that’s waiting for you in the South Shetland Islands.
Maybe I'm really just a bit of a polar puritan. I look for the opportunities to see the wildlife and the landscapes (and ice-scapes), and my criteria for picking a polar trip is based on the time exposed to the wildlife and landscapes. Provided I get a hot meal every now and again (and somewhere to recharge camera batteries) I'm certainly not looking for fine dining or extensive leisure facilities.
And deep down I think you really should arrive in Antarctica by sea, flying over the Drake Passage rather than experiencing what it can throw at you really is cheating.