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Antarctic Tourism – Frequently Asked Questions

How did tourism in Antarctica begin?

Tourism to Antarctic coastal areas began in the late 1950s with Chile and Argentina carrying a few hundred fare-paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands. The first expedition to Antarctica with travellers was in 1966 and was lead by Lars Eric Lindblad. The modern expedition cruise industry was born shortly after, in 1969, when Lindblad built the first expedition ship MS Explorer. Since 1970 tourist expeditions have regularly ventured to Antarctica every year.

Is tourism to the Antarctic regulated?

All human activities in Antarctica are regulated by the Antarctic Treaty and its associated measures, including the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

The industry is largely managed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which was founded in 1991 by seven private tour operators involved in Antarctic tourism. It is now an organization made up of more than 100 member companies that aims to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.

How many tourist ships operate in Antarctica?

In 2016/2017, a total of 65 vessels are registered with IAATO for travel to Antarctica.

These range in size and capacity:

  • C1 = Traditional expedition ships that carry 13-200 passengers and are making landings (33 vessels)
  • C2 = Mid-size vessels that carry 201-500 passengers and are making landings (four vessels)
  • CR = – Vessels that carry more than 500 passengers and do not make landings (cruise only, six vessels).
  • YA = Sailing or motor yachts that carry 12 or fewer passengers (22 vessels).

How many tourists visit Antarctica each year?

Tourism has grown from a few hundred at the beginning of the tourist industry in the 1950s to a total of 38,478 visitors in 2015-2016. It is expected to increase in line with worldwide trends, but is strong correlated with global economic activity. The majority (>75%) of visitors experience Antarctica on ships making landings on the Peninsula. Most of these depart from ports in South America, but some (approx. 6%) fly to the South Shetland Islands where they immediately board a ship for onward excursions. Around 1% of visitors fly in to the Antarctic interior each year.
Check the IAATO website for current tourism statistics and trends.

Which part of Antarctica do tourists visit?

Antarctic visits generally concentrate on ice-free coastal zones over the five-month period from November to March. Most vessels sail to the Antarctic Peninsula region although some itineraries include South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. A small number of tourist expedition ships visit the Weddell Sea, the Ross Sea region and East Antarctica, as well as many of the other sub-Antarctic islands (eg Snares Islands and Macquarie Island). Private expeditions also visit inland sites, including Mt Vinson (Antarctica’s highest mountain) and the geographic South Pole.

What tourist activities are involved?

Activities include sightseeing ship-based cruises, visits to operational scientific stations and historical huts, small boat cruising, visits to wildlife sites and other wilderness sites, hiking, kayaking, mountaineering, camping and scuba-diving. The majority are ship or yacht based and a small proportion land-based in temporary field camps.

How are landings managed?

Visits from ship or yacht based tourism ashore are generally of short duration lasting approximately 1-3 hours and of moderate intensity with a maximum of 100 passengers excluding expedition staff. Depending on the site visited and time of year, there can be between 1-3 landings per day using inflatable crafts or, rarely, helicopters to transfer visitors. Field Staff supervise all shore visits with a ratio of one member of staff for every 10-20 tourists. Staff usually has past Antarctic experience (IAATO requires 75% of the field team to have previous Antarctic experience) and occupations can range from: ornithologists, marine biologists, general biologists,

geologists, glaciologists, historians, and naturalists.

All tourists are obliged to comply with the Antarctic Treaty, Environmental Protocol and adhere to the Guidance For Visitors to the Antarctic (Recommendation XVII – 1):

****Note this is not the complete version of 18-1

1. Protect Antarctic wildlife

  • 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
  • Keep noise to the minimum
  • Do not bring non-native species to Antarctica

2. Respect protected areas

  • Be aware of the locations of protected areas
  • Respect the restrictions that apply to these sites
  • Do not damage, destroy or remove artefacts from Historic sites or monuments

3. Respect scientific research

  • Obtain permission before visiting Antarctic science stations
  • Do not interfere in any way with scientific equipment, study sites or field camps

4. Be safe

  • Know your capabilities and act with safety in mind
  • Keep a safe distance from all wildlife
  • Do not stray from the group
  • Do not walk onto glaciers or large snowfields unless properly trained

5. Keep Antarctica pristine

  • Do not litter
  • Do not deface or graffiti rocks and buildings
  • Do not remove artefacts as souvenirs. This includes: rocks, bones, fossils and contents of buildings

IAATO Members also operate with codes of conduct that limit approach distances and behaviour in the vicinity of wildlife aggregations. In addition, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties have adopted a series of Site Guidelines for Visitors for the most visited sites in Antarctica.

Can tourists visit BAS stations in Antarctica and South Georgia?

BAS welcomes a small number of visits to its stations from IAATO affiliated companies during the Antarctic summer. Small groups are given a guided tour of the facilities, where they have the opportunity to learn about the world-class science undertaken by BAS, and the logistics that support it.

Maximum number of visits to BAS stations:

  • Rothera: up to two tour ships per year
  • Signy: up to four tour ship visits per year
  • Halley: visits are considered on a case-by-case basis
  • Bird Island (South Georgia): visitors are not allowed to Bird Island due to its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest
  • King Edward Point (South Georgia): visits to the fisheries research station at King Edward Point require the prior permission of the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI)