Antarctica has become one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. Since 1969, the average number of visitors to the continent has increased from several hundred to over 34,000 today. All activities in Antarctica are heavily regulated by the Antarctic Treaty for environmental protection purposes and the industry is largely managed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
History of Tourism in Antarctica
The first expedition to Antarctica with travelers was in 1966, led by Swedish explorer Lars Eric Lindblad. Lindblad wanted to give tourists a first-hand experience on the ecological sensitivity of the Antarctic environment, in order to educate them and promote a greater understanding of the continent's role in the world. The modern expedition cruise industry was born shortly after, in 1969, when Lindblad built the world's first expedition ship, the "MS Lindblad Explorer," which was specifically designed to transport tourists to Antarctica.
In 1977, both Australia and New Zealand started to offer scenic flights to Antarctica through Qantas and Air New Zealand. The flights often flew to the continent without landing and returned to the departure airport. The experience was an average 12 to 14 hours with up to 4 hours flying directly over the continent.
The flights from Australia and New Zealand stopped in 1980. It was due in large part to the Air New Zealand Flight 901 accident on November 28, 1979, in which a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 aircraft carrying 237 passengers and 20 crew members collided into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, killing all onboard. Flights to Antarctica did not resume again until 1994.
Despite the potential hazards and risks, tourism to Antarctica continued to grow. According to IAATO, 34,354 travelers visited the continent between 2012 and 2013. Americans contributed to the largest share with 10,677 visitors, or 31.1%, followed by Germans (3,830/11.1%), Australians (3,724/10.7%), and the British (3,492/10.2%). The remainder of the visitors were from China, Canada, Switzerland, France, and elsewhere.
The IAATO's original visitor and tour operator guidelines served as the basis in the development of the Antarctic Treaty Recommendation XVIII-1, which includes guidance for Antarctic visitors and for non-government tour organizers. Some of the mandated guidelines include:
- Do not disturb wildlife either at sea or on land
- Do not feed or touch animals or photograph in a way that will disturb
- Do not damage plants or bring invasive species
- Do not damage, destroy, or remove artifacts from historic sites. This includes rocks, bones, fossils, and content of buildings
- Do not interfere with scientific equipment, study sites, or field camps
- Do not walk onto glaciers or large snowfields unless properly trained
- Do not litter
There are currently over 58 vessels registered with the IAATO. Seventeen of the vessels are categorized as yachts, which can transport up to 12 passengers, 28 are considered category 1 (up to 200 passengers), 7 are category 2 (up to 500), and 6 are cruise ships, capable of housing anywhere from 500 to 3,000 visitors.
Tourism in Antarctica Today
Most ships depart from South America, particularly Ushuaia in Argentina, Hobart in Australia, and Christchurch or Auckland, New Zealand. The principal destination is the Antarctic Peninsula region, which includes the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Certain private expeditions may include visits to inland sites, including Mt .Vinson (Antarctica's highest mountain) and the geographic South Pole. An expedition can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
Yachts and category 1 ships generally land on the continent with a duration lasting approximately 1 - 3 hours. There can be between 1-3 landings per day using inflatable crafts or helicopters to transfer visitors. Category 2 ships typically sail the waters with or without landing and cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers are no longer operational as of 2009 due to concerns of oil or fuel spills.
Most of the activities while on land include visits to operational scientific stations and wildlife sties, hiking, kayaking, mountaineering, camping, and scuba-diving. Excursions are always accompanied by seasoned staff members, which often includes an ornithologist, marine biologist, geologist, naturalist, historian, general biologist, and/or glaciologist.
A trip to Antarctica can range anywhere from as little as $3,000-$4,000 to over $40,000, depending on the scope of transportation, housing, and activity needs. The higher end packages typically involve air transport, on-site camping, and a visit to the South Pole.
British Antarctic Survey (2013, September 25). Antarctic Tourism. Retrieved from: //www.antarctica.ac.uk/about_antarctica/tourism/faq.php
International Association of Antarctica Tour Operations (2013, September 25). Tourism Overview. Retrieved from: //iaato.org/tourism-overview