Tourism in Antarctica started with sea tourism in the late 1960s. Air overflights of Antarctica started in the 1970s with sightseeing flights by airliners from Australia and New Zealand, and were resumed in the 1990s. The (summer) tour season lasts from November to March. Most of the estimated 14,762 visitors to Antarctica in 1999-2000 were on sea cruises. During the 2009 to 2010 tourist season, over 37,000 people visited Antarctica.
Landing in Antarctica
Tourism companies are required by the Antarctic Treaty to have a permit to visit Antarctica. Many sea cruises by cruise ships include a landing by RIB (Zodiac) or helicopter. Some land visits may include mountaineering, skiing or even a visit to the South Pole.
During the 1920s, a Falkland Islands mail ship, the SS Fleurus, made annual trips to the South Shetland Islands and South Orkney Islands to serve whaling and sealing stations there. It carried a small number of commercial passengers, and marketed round-trip "tourist tickets"; these were probably the first commercial tourists to sail to Antarctica.
Modern expedition cruising was pioneered by Lars-Eric Lindblad; in 1969, he launched the MS Lindblad Explorer, a purpose-built liner. Many of the sea cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina. Sea cruises generally last anywhere between 10 days and 3 weeks and costs start from around US$6,000 per person for shared accommodation cabins.
There are limited sea cruises to the Ross Sea and East Antarctic (Commonwealth Bay) regions of Antarctica. The New Zealand expedition travel company Heritage Expeditions operates its own ice-strengthened polar research vessel the 'Spirit of Enderby' to these regions several times a year.
Occasionally, very large cruise vessels have visited Antarctica carrying over 950 people. These vessels are usually cruise based and offer no landings. However, in 2009, new regulations were enforced that stopped large vessels from operating in Antarctic waters.
Scenic flights from Australia and New Zealand in 1977-1979 flew to the Antarctic mainland without landing and returned to the departure airport. Flights resumed from Australia in 1994. These flights were regarded as domestic not international, although Air New Zealand flights had an international (TE) prefix for logistical reasons. Qantas flights were all charter flights, organized by groups like the Scouts for fund-raising. Some Air NZ flights were charter flights, and others were non-scheduled services with tickets sold by the airline and agents. Tour packages were sold in Japan, and flights with Sir Edmund Hillary as commentator were popular. Flights take 12 to 14 hours, with up to four hours over the continent.
Qantas started on 13 February 1977, with a flight organized by Sydney entrepreneur Dick Smith. By 1979, 27 flights had carried more than 7,000 passengers. Most used Boeing 747Bs, and flew from Sydney, Melbourne or Perth on two “ice” routes. One went along the coast of George V Land to the French base in Adele Land then back over the South Magnetic Pole. The other went over Oates Land and northern Victoria Land to Cape Washington in the Ross Dependency. In 1977 one went over McMurdo Sound and Mount Erebus. Some shorter flights from Melbourne were in Boeing 707s. Flights from Australia stopped after the Mount Erebus crash in 1979 (see below) but resumed in 1994, chartered by Antarctica Flights who operate numerous sightseeing flights out of Australia every year.
Air New Zealand flights started on 15 February 1977. There were six in 1977, four in 1978, and four in 1979. The DC-10 flights flew from Auckland to McMurdo Sound, with later flights flying down the middle of the sound and over Scott Base rather than over Ross Island and near Mount Erebus. Many descended low over McMurdo Sound for the view, but could not go particularly slow as wing flaps could not be used to slow the aircraft in case they could not be retracted. The last flight was Air New Zealand Flight 901 of 28 November 1979 which crashed into Mount Erebus.
There were earlier scenic overflights, such as from Chile in 1958.
There were private yacht voyages in the Southern Ocean from the late 1960s, with some circumnavigations of Antarctica e.g. by David Henry Lewis in 1972.
There are now about 30 yachts each year visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, which is in the warmer “banana belt.” Many four-day cruises leave from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, others from Ushuaia or Stanley.
Land activities include camping, hiking and cross country skiing. These activities have become especially popular in recent times, as suggested by the increased number of tourists that come to visit Antarctica.
The Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty does not specifically address tourism, but its provisions go some way to minimising the adverse impacts of tourists because, once ratified, the protocol is legally binding over all visitors to the Antarctic, whether on government or private trips.
In 1994 the Treaty countries made further recommendations on tourism and non-government activities. This "Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic" is intended to help visitors become aware of their responsibilities under the treaty and protocol. The document concerns the protection of Antarctic wildlife and protected areas, the respecting of scientific research, personal safety and impact on the environment. Guidelines have also been written for the organisers of tourist and private ventures - these require prior notification of the trip to the organiser's national authority (e.g. Antarctica NZ), assessment of potential environmental impacts, the ability to cope with environmental emergencies such as oil spills, self-sufficiency, the proper disposal of wastes and respect for the Antarctic environment and research activities. The guidelines outline detailed procedures to be followed during the planning of the trip, when in the Antarctic Treaty area and on completion of the trip.
Tourist operators in Antarctica have organised an association (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) to promote safety and environmental responsibility amongst cruise operators. The members of this association carry the majority of tourists to Antarctica.
Individual countries have also introduced measures to minimise effects of tourists. Chile requires all captains of ships that go to Antarctica to attend a month-long school in Antarctic navigation. New Zealand sends a government representative on all ships visiting the Ross Dependency to supervise visits to the historic huts and Scott Base and to observe how well the provisions of the treaty and protocol are adhered to. In 2008, the South Korean government passed a law prohibiting Korean passport-holders from visiting Antarctica.
Even with reduced impact per visitor, the increasing number of visitors could still have a considerable effect on the environment. Monitoring of impacts at specific sites can be used to determine whether tourists should be allowed to continue to visit a particular area. Although visits are usually short, they are concentrated into a small number of landing sites and have the potential to destroy parts of a unique environment and to jeopardize scientific research.