Friday, November 5, 2010

A Frigid Presidential Summit

According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, it will be an icy summit between Chile’s center-right President Sebastián Piñera and his left-of-center Ecuadorean counterpart Rafael Correa tomorrow, but that’s not because the two dislike each other or have ideological differences. Nor does it mean the two countries are at diplomatic loggerheads. Rather, it’s because the two will observe “Chilean Antarctic Day” on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands - where both countries maintain bases.

President Correa will, in fact, be the first president ever to visit his country’s Base Pedro Vicente Maldonado, its scientific research station on Greenwich Island, to the west of King George in the South Shetland group, though several Chilean presidents have visited their Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva (pictured below, it’s also known as Base Teniente Rodolfo Marsh). Like Argentina, Britain and several other countries, Chile claims a slice of the Antarctic, although all such territorial claims are on hold by international agreement.

Meanwhile, in the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, a week-long celebration that started last Sunday will continue, as Punta considers itself Chile’s gateway to Antarctica (though most tourist traffic leaves from the Argentine port of Ushuaia). According to Mercopress, mayor Liliana Kusanovic has stated that “The purpose of all these activities is to show the relevant aspects of the territory regarding tourism, science research, logistics, culture and government policies, besides creating awareness and a regional identity with Antarctica.” In July, the regional government of Magallanes - whose jurisdiction includes the Chilean sector of Antarctica - announced the construction of a new International Antarctic Center that will include offices of the Instituto Antarctico Chileno.

Piñera and Correa will likely arrive at King George on a presidential plane from Punta Arenas, but tourists will still be able to reach the island with Aerovías DAP (pictured above, landing at King George), which has leased a new 100-passenger aircraft for its summer flights to Antarctica and elsewhere in the region. DAP, which is celebrating its third decade of service in the region, is also the link for the “air cruise” operated by Antarctica XXI, which saves visitors two days’ crossing the gut-wrenching Drake Passage - in each direction.

These trips don’t come cheap - a minimum of US$8,990 per person for a week navigating along the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetlands - but neither do shorter trips with DAP: a day trip to King George costs US$3,004 (taxes included) and an overnight stay costs US$1,000 more. Still, for anyone with more money than time who wants to visit Antarctica, it’s an option worth consideration.

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