Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

As New Zealand prepares to build its new Scott Base in Antarctica, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a high-end polar lodge.

The dramatic, wing-like structures to be built on Ross Island have been dubbed “New Zealand’s coolest redevelopment” by the project’s New Zealand architects, Jasmax.

The Green Star 5 Star Design represents a significant upgrade from the current buildings. Some of which have been in place since Edmund Hillary’s 1957 expedition.

“Significant thought” has been put into a design that reflects Māoritanga and uniquely Kiwi connection to the continent, with “durability, comfort, economy and style”, says lead architect Hugh Broughton.

Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

Visualisations of the Scott Base rebuild interiors. Photo / Jasmax, Hugh Broughton Architects, Antarctica NZ

At the centrepiece in the dining area, the 100 occupants will be treated to “a glazed end wall with spectacular views towards Mount Erebus and Mount Terror.”

It’s the kind of experience that tourists cannot buy. Not yet, at least.

Leading academics and polar tourism operators have accused Antarctica NZ of planning an Antarctic hotel.

Dr Alan Hemmings, a specialist on Antarctic Governance at the University of Canterbury, says the similarities between the architectural drawing and a high-end hotel are not accidental.

“The kind of de facto corporatisation of the New Zealand Antarctic programme has meant that you now have a body of people who think in commercial terms and that’s the board of Antarctica New Zealand.”

The Scott Base building shares an architectural pedigree with hotels and museums. Previous projects include the Auckland Cordis Hotel and leading English museums. This may seem like overkill for a base that could see 300 visitors a year.

However, this could all change.

Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

The Australian Davis Station rebuild. Photo / Hugh Broughton Architects, WSP, AAD

Hemmings says many of the trends of the Antarctica NZ redevelopment are also being seen elsewhere. The NZ$472 million Australian Davis Station expansion is set to be delivered over the same 10-year period and includes a permanent runway.

“A glorious Scott Base might actually be usable as a scientific station and be much nicer than the present one,” says Hemmings. “But in 10 or 20 years time, what is to stop it being turned into a hotel?”

Scott Base redevelopment is dwarfed by the size of investment by the likes of the US Antarctic Programme and even Argentina, whose new Antarctica Logistic Pole in Ushuaia is forecast to cost more than NZ$400 million.

Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

The British Antarctic Survey Halley VI research station. Photo / J Morris, Hugh Broughton Architects, Aecom

Tourism is one of many pressures driving an explosion in investment and hardware in Antarctica. Visitors have tripled over the past decade to almost 60000 summer guests. Yet, less than 1 per cent of this reaches Scott Base and the Ross Sea.

Since 2003 the official policy of New Zealand has been to “limit tourism and other non-governmental activities in Antarctica”.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) limits its support to “humanitarian assistance and basic hospitality” to the few hundred tourists and adventure seekers who make their way to the Ross Sea every summer.

However, there are signs that the hardline stance against Antarctic tourism is beginning to thaw.

“I think New Zealand’s missing a huge opportunity,” says Aaron Russ, director of Heritage Expeditions – the only New Zealand-based operator visiting the continent.

“If you’re looking at where the first Antarctic hotel will be, there are a few candidates,” he says. “If you’ve got a runway and you have a commercial partner there’s no reason why that can’t occur.”

Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

Illustration / Rod Emmerson

It’s not only national research programmes that are investing in new hardware to ship south. Heritage has recently bought the Heritage Adventurer, a 140 passenger ice-rated ship.

“Antarctic tourism has been growing rapidly,” an Mfat spokesperson told the Herald. “Though in the past Antarctic season there was almost none, given the travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Forecasts for the 2021/22 summer estimated a five-ship and 1138-passenger season, a six-fold increase on 2019. Due to the maritime border order, Heritage will not be among them.

Mfat’s current public consultation for New Zealand’s research priorities for the next decade identifies human visitation as one of the most important changes in the region.

“While the region remains largely unchanged by human intervention, the small number of visitors to Antarctica continues to increase, and there’s international interest in ensuring that activities in the region are planned, safe and environmentally responsible.”

It is over this 10-year period that the Scott Base redevelopment is set to be delivered.

So can we expect to check-in at the Scott Hotel for 2030?

Scott Base Hotel: Is Antarctica New Zealand building a luxury polar lodge?

'New Zealand's Coolest Redevelopment': Scott Base. Photo / Jasmax, Hugh Broughton Architects, Antarctica NZ

The “Five-Star green star” methodology was used “to make sure we’re meeting sustainability issues, but we’re not looking to make it a hotel any time soon,” says Ceisha Poirot, general manager for Policy, Environment and Safety at Antarctica New Zealand.

“It’s a matter of looking after our people to 2021 standards.”

The 60-year-old buildings are ready to be retired, much to the relief of the researchers who use them.

However, Hemmings thinks they may still be leaving the hotel-plan door ajar.

The next three decades are set to see some important reviews for equally aged legal infrastructure. Not only is New Zealand’s policy towards tourism in the Southern Ocean 20 years old, but the international Antarctic Treaties has some important milestones and reviews.

“You can see it in [the way] most states are hedging their bets, as a result of that ambiguity … after the middle of the century.” Hemmings said.

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