Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A New Antarctic Gateway?

For more than two decades, the Argentine port of Ushuaia has been the gateway for tourist travel to Antarctica, and for good reason. Not only is it the closest city to the Antarctic, but it also has an excellent international airport, good cruise ship facilities (pictured below), and other infrastructure, including accommodations, restaurants and shops. In fact, according to the municipal Secretaría de Turismo, Ushuaia has 144 separate accommodations, ranging from hostels to B&Bs to five-star hotels and everything in between, with over 2000 rooms and 5000 beds.

The nearest city with the infrastructure to compete with Ushuaia is the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, but it has one fatal disadvantage - sailing from Punta Arenas adds at least one costly day in each direction to any Antarctic voyage. Acknowledging that Punta is not a suitable gateway to the Antarctic, Chilean authorities have decided to expand the pier at tiny Puerto Williams - across the Beagle Channel, on Isla Navarino just 25 nautical miles southeast of Ushuaia - in hopes of attracting Antarctic cruise vessels there.

The problem, as I see it, is that without massive additional investment in Puerto Williams (pictured above, population about 2,000), including an airport expansion and major hotel construction, Ushuaia (population 56,500) has a head start that will be impossible to overcome in the lifetime of anyone reading this article. At present, Williams has only a handful of accommodations, and only one of those, the 24-room Hotel Lakutaia, is up to international standards. In total, there are probably fewer than 100 rooms on the entire island, in an area of nearly 2,500 square kilometers (about 1,000 square miles).

Navarino has plenty of attractions, to be sure, but they’re not the sorts of attractions likely to grab cruise ship visitors - a trek through Williams’s wild southern beech forests to the tops of its barren crags - the Dientes de Navarino - is likelier to pull in rugged backpackers prepared for several days of the worst that this wet, windy capricious climate can offer. Providing the services that cruise ships visitors need will mean not just extending the pier by 70 meters (presumably to handle ships larger than the imposing Chilean naval vessel pictured below) and expanding the airport. It would also mean providing services, such as hotels and restaurants, that cruise ship passengers demand while waiting for their ship to sail. That would also mean large-scale immigration, at least seasonally, housing all the necessary workers, and providing supplies in a food-deficit area.

It’s worth noting that Puerto Williams is no longer even on a stop on the Cruceros Australis voyages from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back, as passengers on these cruises (which now go ashore at Cape Horn) clear customs and immigration at Puerto Navarino (far tinier than Puerto Williams), without even disembarking in Chilean territory. The crew simply carries the passports ashore at Navarino as the passengers are sleeping soundly on board.

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