Visiting Antarctica

More people visit Antarctica for tourism than any other purpose.

Between 2014 and 2020, the number of tourists visiting Antarctica almost doubled.

Antarctic tourism is growing most rapidly in one of the regions most affected by the climate crisis.

There are few legally binding regulations to govern or restrict Antarctic tourism.

More travelers, larger groups and more activities are having an untested impact on the fragile Antarctic environment. 

VISITING ANTARCTICA

Jump to section

historic ship

HISTORY OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM

In the beginning

Around the 1880s, or perhaps even earlier, paying passengers sailed South as tourists on industrial vessels. These early sightseers participated in life aboard working ships as they visited sub-Antarctic islands, with later voyages venturing progressively south.

Les Eclaireurs
Credit: Unknown [Possibly Carlos V. Cácharo, 1958]

historic tourism
Excursion by boat, Melchior Islands, January 1958. Image provided by Carlos P. Vairo, Director, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia.
First tourist landing in Deception Island from Les Eclaireurs, January 1958. Image provided by Carlos P. Vairo, Director, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia.
Whaling remains at Deception Island, January 1958. Image provided by Carlos P. Vairo, Director, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia.
early tourists to Antarctica
Fumaroles at Deception Island, January 1958. Image provided by Carlos P. Vairo, Director, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia.
historic map of Antarctica
Itinerario of the first Antarctic tourism cruise in Les Eclaireurs, January 1958. Image provided by Carlos P. Vairo, Director, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia.

Tourism before the Antarctic Treaty

HISTORY OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM

The exact origins of modern Antarctic tourism remain hazy. Around the 1950s, Argentine and Chilean operators started offering dedicated tourist voyages with approximately 100 passengers each. The modus operandi was very similar to that in use today.

The first Antarctic flights were offered around the same time, with small groups flying from Chile to Antarctica in 1959. Between them, they took around 500 tourists to Antarctica each season. 

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 to establish a system of collective international governance, including regulations for most human activity in Antarctica. The Treaty made no specific reference to tourism: at the time, no one could have imagined Antarctic tourism on the scale we see today. 

VOYAGE TO ANTARCTICA

Turismo en la Antártida

View historical footage from an Argentinian tourism voyage to Antarctica on the vessel Les Eclaireurs, January 1958.

Cruise ship and penguins
Adélie penguins and cruise ship

Modern Antarctic tourism begins

HISTORY OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM

For many years, the number of people visiting Antarctica remained small. By the 1980s there were four companies operating in Antarctica, each of them carrying around 100 passengers. Most people visited Antarctica by ship, making short excursions ashore in small rubber boats. One tourism company offered land-based tourism, with flights to a remote field camp where tourists could take guided hikes, ski expeditions and other adventurous options. The first tourists reached the South Pole in January 1988, 77 years after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

These were the halcyon days of Antarctic tourism. A frontier industry tucked away on the underside of the globe, a world few knew anything about. Some measures within the Antarctic Treaty may have applied to tourists, for example those related to the protection of flora and fauna, but there were few ways of enforcing them. There were no tourism-specific regulations  governing how many people visited, when or where.

view from ship's bow

By the early 1990s, interest in visiting Antarctica was growing. There were six companies and ten vessels operating in Antarctic waters, as well as one land-based operator, together bringing over 6,000 tourists to the region each season.

tourist and penguin
Gentoo penguin chick and tourist

The start of something big

HISTORY OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM

The year 1991 was a significant one. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of polar vessels previously used for research and surveillance in the Arctic were made available for charters to polar regions. This influx of ice-strengthened ships propelled a period of growth in an evolving industry.

That same year, seven Antarctic tourism operators came together to establish the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). The primary goal of IAATO was to promote safe and responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica.  

Since then, tourism in Antarctica has continued to grow steadily with a couple of small dips in demand, usually linked to broader global economic phenomena. For example, after the 2008 global financial crisis the number of tourists visiting Antarctica dropped significantly for some years before recovering. 

By the 2013-14 season Antarctic tourism was growing rapidly once more, with 37,000 travelers and over 48 companies operating during the short five month tourism season. At the end of the 2019-20 season IAATO reported approximately 74,000 tourists had visited Antarctica. The number had almost doubled in only six years. The following season it would plummet to only 15 visitors landing ashore, with the Covid-19 pandemic putting a stop to virtually all international tourism for over 12 months. 

Yacht off the Antarctic Peninsula coast

Growth and diversification

ANTARCTIC TOURISM TODAY

Today, Antarctic tourism is a large and growing industry. As of 2022, there are 16-20 new cruise vessels due for delivery within 3 years. While some older vessels are being retired, these new vessels will allow 30 to 40 percent more tourists to visit Antarctica within only a few years. 

Travelers can choose from a smorgasbord of travel options from expedition cruise ships to sailing or motor yachts and air travel. Some may choose to travel on a large cruise vessel carrying 800 or more passengers and never set foot on land, instead enjoying the view from the outer decks. Others participate in shore landings, sightseeing cruises in small rubber boats and an ever-growing assortment of adventure options from sea kayaking to scuba diving and stand-up paddleboarding and tours in submersible crafts. Others still join deep field expeditions, flying into remote camps on the ice sheet and using them as a jumping off point for climbing, mountaineering, skiing and other expeditions on the polar plateau.  

This growth and diversity has made Antarctica more accessible than ever before, and dramatically expanded the opportunities available to Antarctic tourists. However, it comes at a time when Antarctica is undergoing rapid change, and with untested impacts on the Antarctic environment. 

adelie and chick beak to beak

Most Antarctic tourism takes place on the Antarctic Peninsula: the most rapidly warming place in the Southern Hemisphere. Air temperatures here rose by 5°F (3°C) between the 1950s and early 2000s – more than five times the global mean. 

Esperanza Station in Hope Bay, Trinity Peninsula

An ecosystem under pressure

ANTARCTIC TOURISM TODAY

Tourism activities are concentrated in important pockets of biodiversity, in the part of Antarctica most severely affected by the climate crisis and growing krill fisheries

The vast majority of Antarctica is covered in ice. Small ice-free regions are home to a diversity of delicate plant life and invertebrates, and provide essential rocky nesting grounds for Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. 

Tourists in Antarctica also land on these tiny slivers of ice-free ground to visit penguin colonies, admire mosses and wander along the delicate shore. Despite regulations put in place to protect the most vulnerable habitats, all visits have an impact.

Antarctic krill
Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba)

Krill fisheries

ANTARCTIC TOURISM TODAY

A growing commercial krill fishery adds another layer of complexity to the situation on the Antarctic Peninsula. Commercial fishing of Antarctic krill began in the 1970s, and is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Today most commercial krill fisheries are concentrated around the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea areas, where most tourism also takes place.

Krill are a keystone species in the food web and the primary food source for many Antarctic animals. They are particularly abundant around the Antarctic Peninsula, where they provide an accessible feast for penguins as they commute back and forth from their nests to the sea, collecting food for their chicks through the summer. 

Some estimates suggest krill numbers have declined by 70 to 80 percent since the 1970s in parts of this area. Researchers also report that krill populations appear to be migrating south to cooler waters, in response to the climate crisis. The collapse of Adélie and chinstrap penguin colonies in this region has also been linked to shrinking krill populations.The Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing very rapid change on many fronts. While we have some information about the impacts of increasing human activity on Antarctic ecosystems the true impacts are unknown, and more research is needed.

Antarctic scenery

REGULATION OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM

The majority of Antarctic tour operators take environmental protection very seriously. However, the current regulatory system is incomplete.

REGULATION OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM

How is Antarctic tourism regulated today?

There are few legally binding instruments in force to regulate Antarctic tourism. However, several international organizations and agreements play a role in its management.

Antarctic mountain and ocean

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol)

The Environmental Protocol outlines basic principles that protect the Antarctic environment and guide most human activities in the region, including tourism. 

The Protocol also contains regulations concerning required Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and the protection of flora and fauna. The Environmental Protocol entered into force in 1998.

Find out more

iceberg arch

Other instruments within the Antarctic Treaty System

There is no dedicated body within the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) tasked with regulating tourism. 

However, there are two legally binding instruments related to tourism. They were adopted over 10 years ago but have not been ratified by all Parties, so they are not yet in force, but they are applied voluntarily by the industry. One refers to Search and Rescue (SAR) requirements. The other prohibits vessels carrying more than 500 passengers from landing.

There are other instruments within the ATS which relate to the management of tourism. These include Site Guidelines for Visitors, which are the most important, practical regulations for day-to-day tourism landings, although they are not legally binding. Tourism operators are also required to observe legally binding protected areas including Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs), Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs), and Historic Sites and Monuments (HSMs).

Antarctic cruise ship

International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO)

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is an international industry body  established by Antarctic tour operators.

IAATO was founded in 1991 to ‘advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally friendly private-sector travel to the Antarctic.’ 

Since then, IAATO has developed extensive operational procedures and guidelines, many of which have been adopted as regulations by Antarctic Treaty nations. 

Today IAATO is an invited expert at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, representing the Antarctic tourism industry and its more than 100 member organizations.

Ship in fog

International Maritime Organization (IMO)

The International Maritime Organization is an agency of the United Nations responsible for safety and security in international shipping, and preventing pollution from ships. 

There are several IMO conventions that apply to vessels sailing on the Southern Ocean:

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS): an international maritime treaty that sets minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL): the main international convention that covers the prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes.

The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code): entered into force in 2017, introducing mandatory, legally-binding safety and pollution prevention measures for cruise ships and large cargo ships (over 500 gross tons) in polar waters.

Together, these international agreements impose legally binding measures on vessels in the Southern Ocean. 

However, there are significant gaps in the safety and environmental regulations for shipping in the polar regions. 

ASOC continues to lobby for a stronger and more enforceable Polar Code for vessels in the Southern Ocean.

Learn More

/

cruise ship and penguins

FUTURE OF ANTARCTIC TOURISM 

What lies ahead?

With no legal mechanisms underlying the management of Antarctic tourism, responsible practices rely primarily on self-regulation and goodwill. 

As the industry continues to grow and the climate crisis propels us into uncharted territory, clear, enforceable regulations are needed to protect the fragile environments in which tourism is taking place.

KEEP LEARNING

Related reading

CCAMLR Opening 2018

Governance

Antarctica is governed by over 50 nations.

seal

Protection

Now is the time to protect Antarctica.

whale tail

Tourism

What is the future of Antarctic tourism?

Antarctic waterfall

Climate crisis

Parts of Antarctica are changing rapidly.

emperor penguin chicks in huddle

Take action

Start acting for Antarctica today.

Visiting Antarctica

FEATURED LEARNING

Now that you’ve learned about Antarctic tourism, read on to learn more about extraordinary Antarctica.

tourist
Tourist in Antarctica
Was this article helpful?
YesNo