Antarctica has fascinated the public since it was first discovered centuries ago. It’s the driest desert on the planet and its ice-covered landscape is as beautiful as it is deadly. While the early polar explorations led to the first permanent science stations, tourism is something a lot newer. Visiting Antarctica has only been happening for the last 60 years and is getting more popular with each passing season.
The Antarctic Treaty was created in 1959—an agreement between nations where the continent would only be used for peaceful and scientific purposes.
The first tourist visits began in January the year before. The Argentine Republic organised two cruises on the ship Les Eclaireurs. Each trip hosted nearly 100 paying passengers. Because of the immense interest, the Yapeyú was charted in 1959 and sailed with over 260 people onboard.
Following in the footsteps of Argentina, the Republic of Chile sent the Navarino later in the year with nearly 100 passengers.
The first dedicated, purpose-built Antarctic passenger ship came in 1969. The MV Lindblad Explorer was the brainchild of Lars-Eric Lindblad, a Swedish-American millionaire who pioneered many elements of polar tourism. The Explorer had a successful career until 2007 when it sank after striking an iceberg. It had a double-strengthened hull but had entered waters where the ice was tougher than the ship’s tolerance. Luckily everyone was saved but the sinking did cause some minor environmental damage. If the Explorer had been closer to shore, the oil contamination could’ve been a lot worse.
In 1977, Qantas and Air New Zealand began the first scenic flights. A trip was usually 14 hours long with four hours flying over Antarctica. The services were cut short in 1980 after the Mount Erebus disaster. A series of navigational issues resulted in Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashing and killing everyone on board. Antarctic flights wouldn’t begin again until 1994.
The 1970s and 1980s saw an advancement in technology making it easier for travellers to access more remote regions. Tourist visits to the South Pole were now possible. While still dangerous, such a trip had killed some of the first polar explorers only a few decades before.
In 1991, the Antarctic-Environmental Protocol was added to the Treaty and recognised the continent as a nature preserve, the world’s largest one. Seven travel companies formed the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). The IAATO is a not-for-profit organisation that managers polar tourism industry interests and keeps Antarctica’s environmental concerns close at heart. The IAATO has been a success and as of 2021 it has over 100 member companies.
You don’t need a visa to visit Antarctica but you do need permission. In Australia, this is handled by the Australian Antarctic Division. By assessing every traveller, the goal is to limit the human impact on the continent. For example, so rubbish isn’t left behind and endangered animals are left alone. It’s a very sensitive ecosystem. Arctic moss can take years to recover if accidently stepped on.
Tourism occurs during the summer, from December to March. Interest is increasing with each passing year. In the 1990–91 season, roughly 15,000 people ventured to Antarctica but by the 2018–19 one the amount had jumped to 55,000. It’s a staggering number compared to the 4,000 scientists and staff that work at the permanent research bases.
Photo Credit: MP Travel Group (https://mptravel.com.au/2019/12/03/silversea-antarctica-arctic-luxury-cruises/)
AAD – Environmental Approvals for Tour and Expedition Organisers (https://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/environment/environmental-impact-assessment-approvals-and-permits/tour-and-expedition-organisers/)
AAD – Tourism (https://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/tourism/)
A Brief History of Antarctic Tourism (https://wayfinderadventures.com/antarctic-tourism/)
Antarctica Tourism – Human Impacts Threats to the Environment (https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/threats_tourism.php)
History of IAATO (https://iaato.org/about-iaato/our-mission/history-of-iaato/)
Tourism in Antarctica: A Growing Industry (https://www.antarcticaguide.com/blog/tourism-in-antarctica)
Tourism in Antarctica – Some Background (http://www.erebus.co.nz/Portals/4/Documents/articles/Timeline%20-%20Tourism%20in%20Antarctica.pdf)