In an exclusive with Travel and Tour World, Robyn Woodhead, new Chair of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) shares about her latest responsibility, challenges faced by IAATO during the COVID-19 pandemic and the way forward.
Travel And Tour World: How do you feel about taking up the role of the Chair of Executive Committee at IAATO?
Robyn Woodhead: It is a great privilege and an honour to be able to serve IAATO in the role as Chair of the Executive Committee and indeed to try to give something back to the place that has given me so much joy, Antarctica.
Travel And Tour World: Can you share some of IAATO’s upcoming goals and objectives for the remaining of the year?
Robyn Woodhead: IAATO is continually focused on its core mandate to support safe and environmentally responsible tourism to the Antarctic. In 2021, we are excited to celebrate 30 years of IAATO and are using this milestone to look back at the many incredible achievements we have made as a community of competitors who set aside our differences for the good of Antarctica’s continued conservation. We are also looking forward to how we can continually improve. Some of our short-term priorities are, of course, around Covid-19. Our priority has always been to safeguard Antarctica from Covid-19. We will emerge from this global pandemic with more robust guidelines, protocols, shared learning, and agreed measures in place so that Antarctica remains pristine and a safe place to operate for our membership and in turn, a safe place for guests to visit and return as ambassadors for its future protection.
In our most recent annual meeting in May, we agreed on improving our already comprehensive biosecurity and decontamination guidelines to prevent non-native species getting to Antarctica. We plan to further strengthen and empower our committees and working groups to find practical solutions for current gateway and operational challenges. For example, we created two new committees, one for accelerating our industry’s commitment to climate change and the other for deep field and air operations. We also created a new working group relating specifically to submersibles. Along with our stakeholder community, we are the experts within our polar industry. Working with our valued stakeholders we continually and consistently evolve our materials and support for our membership as we move into the next 30 years, where we will emerge from Covid, and continue planning for the tourism growth identified prior to the pandemic.
Travel And Tour World: Did the IAATO face any challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic? How did the organization overcome those challenges?
Robyn Woodhead: Every single travel company globally faced challenges due to coronavirus. Antarctic operators felt that pressure acutely as we operate in such a remote and pristine environment. As an industry, IAATO was extremely mindful of keeping Covid out of Antarctica, and of being responsible and safe in all we do. As a great example of our membership’s commitment, soon after the global pandemic emerged in our world, we set up a Covid Advisory Group, working with our own operators and relevant gateways and experts, to keep our membership informed of the constantly evolving restrictions, regulations, vaccine roll-out, and emerging ‘covid-safe’ practices and procedures. We have held a number of meetings over the course of the past year, our most recent one being on the June 1, to discuss coronavirus and safe operations to establish topics and possible protocols around which IAATO as an organisation can unite, particularly with regards to vaccinations and testing. It’s all about being a collaborative community both in times of global crisis as well as times of growth.
Travel And Tour World: What does the future of tourism look like in the Antarctic, especially in the post-pandemic world?
Robyn Woodhead: That’s a good question. Our focus right now, is to work alongside our membership and trusted stakeholders to overcome this pandemic together, with robust protocols to ensure guests can safely and responsibly visit Antarctica again. It requires a lot of hard work in an ever-changing landscape and being a united voice for our industry. Once we can achieve this and I have every confidence we will do so, our next challenge is going to be preparing for the expected industry growth we were seeing prior to the pandemic. We are currently working on preparing our databases and systems to ensure we can support that growth in a responsible way in line with our long-held mission and values. IAATO serves as a resource for our members, and we strive to self-manage. This is a unique responsibility, so we need to ensure we do the right thing for the sake of this place we are all so passionate about, so that we can conserve the natural beauty of the region and create a corps of Antarctic Ambassadors for its future protection.
Travel And Tour World: Can you share something about the latest IAATO Antarctic Fellowship Initiative? Will it contribute towards responsible tourism in any way?
Robyn Woodhead: Yes! In 2019, IAATO and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) launched our first joint Antarctic Fellowship Program with the aims to continue supporting and strengthening the links between tourism and research. Our inaugural Fellows, Martina Mascioni and Daniela Cajiaohave been developing their research on the western Antarctic Peninsula with the support of our operators.
Martina’s research focuses on Antarctic phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms eaten by Antarctic krill which are the baseline of the marine Antarctic food web. Martina’s study is essential to record the biodiversity of western Antarctic Peninsula coastal areas and to better understand how these environments work to predict future changes in the ecosystem due to global warming. Daniela’s research focuses on understanding how different aspects of the visitor experience can influence environmental attitudes, behaviour, and awareness among tourists.
Our 2020 fellowship recipient, Miguel Gonzalez Pleiter, has been furthering the understanding of the potential consequences of microplastic introduction to the Antarctic Environment. He has been particularly focused on Antarctic freshwater to understand their role in potentially spreading antibiotic resistance genes in pristine ecosystems. These are all very important and relevant studies as I’m sure you’ll agree. The applications for this year’s fellowships closed on May 31, but talented early-career scientists and researchers can find out more about the IAATO Antarctic Fellowship on our website iaato.org and apply for next year’s opportunity.
Travel And Tour World: Lastly, is there anything you are mainly looking forward to after taking up the new role in the organization?
Robyn Woodhead: Getting stuck in. I am excited to continue to support the important work of secretariat of IAATO alongside my fellow Executive Committee (EC) members. I am also looking forward to working with the new members on the EC, former Finance Committee Chair, Steve Wellmeier, and John McKeon, former Membership Committee Chair. With all new beginnings comes endings, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the outgoing Chair of the EC, Mark an der Hulst Of Oceanwide Expeditions,who has been an excellent and dedicated Chair. I am looking forward to trying to balance both serving and listening to the needs of our membership and wider stakeholder community with doing what’s right for the future of Antarctic conservation.