Tourists in Antarctica

Tourists on the mountainClick to enlarge
Since the beginning of Antarctic tourism, tourist numbers have risen steeply.
Source: Fritz Hertel/UBA

Scientists formed the majority of visitors to Antarctica prior to 1950. Today tourism is a significant aspect of human activities on the continent. Tens of thousands of people now travel to the icy region every year, mainly by ship but increasingly by plane.

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Possibilities and limits of Antarctic travel

The first touristic journeys to Antarctica were in the late 1950s and originated in Argentina. Paying travellers accompanied researchers to the South Shetland Islands for the first time in 1958. The Swedish-American tour operator and discoverer Lars-Eric Lindblad came up with the Lindblad model in 1966 which is still in effect today: he organized the first cruise trips to Antarctica for travellers who enjoyed information and lectures by experts instead of entertainment programmes. The Lindblad Explorer vessel, launched in 1969, was one of the first cruise ships purpose-built for journeys to polar regions. The typical landings with small inflatable boats are also a Lindblad legacy. There has been regular tourism in Antarctica ever since that time.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was founded in 1991 to promote and ensure safe and environmentally sound tourism in Antarctica. Now the IAATO has more than 100 members who have obliged themselves to advocate and promote the guidelines of this international organization to protect and conserve Antarctica.

The possibilities are many yet with some constraints

The tourist season in Antarctica takes place during the austral summer (November to March) mainly in the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. This region is largely ice-free during the summer months, thus allowing visitors to make landings with inflatable boats (zodiacs) at certain places. Tourists usually make landings at places that are easily accessible and have special attractions like animals, plants, hot springs, glaciers or relics from the whaling era. As a result, these areas are heavily frequented and there are already visible signs of traffic on the local ecosystem. Some 40 to 50 cruise ships and yachts tour Antarctica regularly. There are currently four cruise ships and three yachts sailing under the German flag, with a maximum passenger capacity ranging between ten and 500 people. However, journeys to Antarctica seldom reach the maximum capacity numbers. The main ports of departure are Ushuaia or Buenos Aires in Argentina, Punta Arenas in Chile, and Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory.

Since the onset of tourism in Antarctica, the numbers of tourists going ashore on one of the roughly 160 landing places have risen considerably. Whereas the number of visitors in the 1992/1993 season was about 6,700, the peak season of 2007/2008 witnessed more than 37,000 visitors; in other words, a more than fivefold increase within fifteen years. But the global economic crisis and the entry into force of recent IMO decisions on the transport and storage of heavy fuel oil took a toll on visitor numbers to Antarctica and its offshore islands – down to about 26,500 people in the following three years. Visitor numbers jumped back within a year's time: 34,300 tourists came to Antarctica in the 2012/2013 summer season. Most of the visitors during the Antarctic tourist season are from the US, followed by Germany, Australia and the UK. See the IAATO website for further information and data on tourism.


More and more people yearn for the adventure of wilderness

Not only have the numbers of tourists to Antarctica grown, the types of activities that tourists undertake are also evolving. When commercial tourism to the Antarctic began, it was mainly for sightseeing. Nowadays more and more people are looking for the adventure of wilderness. Extreme hiking and skiing treks, motorized trips on the ice, paragliding, sightseeing flights and so on are increasingly in demand. Much like the landings from the cruise ships a lot of other tourist activity is concentrated on the few ice-free stretches along coasts, but these areas are also the natural habitat of many animal and plant species. There is a conflicting use between man and nature as a result. The volume of visitors alone causes changes in the habitats of plants and animals and this poses a threat to them. This is why it is important to keep disturbances of the flora and fauna and damage of the sensitive Antarctic ecosystem to an absolute minimum or avoid them altogether. It is every responsible visitor’s duty to help in this effort. Before you embark on a journey to Antarctica please review the Visitor Guidelines for the Antarctic. See the Site Guidelines for Visitors for additional information.


Tourism as topic at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting

The Working Group on Tourism discusses the possible regulation of tourism in Antarctica at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). The Parties to the Antarctic Treaty adopt measures and make resolutions at the ATCM.

A resolution adopted in 2007 recommends all tourist activities that may lead to substantial long-term deterioration of the Antarctic environment and its dependent ecosystems be avoided. In particular this concerns the building of permanent tourism infrastructure such as hotels etc. A measure adopted in 2009 stipulates that ships carrying more than 500 passengers may not land in the territory covered by the Antarctic Treaty. Further regulations determine that only one vessel may land at a given landing place at a time, with no more than 100 people going ashore together and with at least one trained guide available to escort groups of no more than 20 visitors ashore. These and other requirements concerning environmentally responsible behaviour on site apply to all landing places likewise.

Since 2005 the Parties to the Antarctic Treaty have also been developing specific visitor guidelines to regulate the activities at the most frequently visited Antarctic sites in response to the lasting impairment of landing places and their ecosystems; see Site Guidelines for Visitors. In addition, Resolution 3 adopted by the ATCM (2011) resulted in General Guidelines for Visitors to the Antarctic which are applicable to all landing areas in the Antarctic places and prescribe a precautionary distance of 5 metres from wildlife.

Other regulations concern the basic principles of Antarctic tourism, safety issues of tourist activities, emergency plans and evidence of valid insurance, improved cooperation and coordination among the Parties, and specific regulation governing air travel. The Parties adopted Resolution 10 (2012) with yachting guidelines to ensure their safe passage through Antarctica.