The Strategist

Why does the southernmost continent allure tourists so much?

05/02/2016 - 11:53

It is expected that the number of tourists who visited Antarctica this year will exceed 46 thousand. This is largely possible thanks to increased number of interesting offers from travel companies, as well as an influx of tourists from China. However, such a hype is a serious concern for environmentalists and climate scientists who see the tourists’ influx in the region as a threat to its unique nature.

Eli Duke via flickr
Eli Duke via flickr
The first tourist flight to Antarctica was organized by American businessman of Swedish origin Lars-Eric Lindblad in 1966. Since then, the popularity of Antarctica as a tourist destination has only grown. As Bloomberg reports, the continent is annually visited by 35-40 thousand people from around the world. The greatest influx  - 46 thousand people – fell on the season-2007/08, after which there has been some decline in demand for such trips because of the financial crisis. Analysts expect that the next season, which begins in November 2016 and will last until February 2017, will attract more tourists compared to the pre-crisis record. This leap in popularity is linked to the increased number of tour operators serving this destination, as well as the growing demand for such tours in China.

Unlike travel 50 years ago, the modern tourist trip to Antarctica is not fraught with serious difficulties; neither it is time-consuming. A cruise ship journey from the southern tip of Argentina through the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula takes about 40 hours. Some operators offer air tours deep into Antarctica, or even 12.5-hour tours on Boeings 747. Still, 90% of tourists prefer sea trips.

The cheapest tour to Antarctica costs about $ 10 thousand. Just like in other industries, there are several major companies providing luxury services, such as Silversea Cruises and Seabourne, owned by Carnival Corporation. Next year, Silversea Cruises is going to introduce a second cruise ship on the route to Antarctica. The company says that the number of rounds to the continent per season would reach twelve. Seabourne’s offers start from $ 16 thousand per person; Silversea Cruises is a little more expensive. The most expensive tour lasting from three weeks may exceed $ 40 thousand. 

The price, however, does not scare away those wishing to visit the region. Mostly, they are Americans - nearly 12,300 in the season 2014/15. Surprisingly, Australians hold the second place. They are followed by Chinese tourists (such trips become increasingly popular there), and the UK and Germany. John Delaney, Seabourn’s senior vice president of Sales and Marketing, says that priorities of wealthy tourists in recent years has shifted. "Just travelling has now become more important for people. The emphasis has shifted from the wealth on experience and impression"- he says.

However, the growing interest in the pristine nature of the southern continent does not please environmentalists and climatologists. Currently, all activities in the continent, including tourism, are regulated by 53 countries - parties of the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) ensures that its members (over 100 companies), providing tourist services, not to harm nature of the region. Executive director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition Claire Christian notes that member countries of the Antarctic Treaty should counteract the continent's tourism less, and develop a comprehensive plan that would allow increasing the number of tourists in the future instead. According to John Delaney of Seabourn, demand for the Antarctic tours will only grow. In his opinion, increased number of tourists will not harm the region’s ecology. "There may not be any other place in the world where there’s such broad consensus on it needs to be protected, and that means completely " - he said in an interview with Bloomberg. 

Meanwhile, a new law on polar areas, adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) comes into force in 2017. Some experts believe that this may limit the amount of tourism in Antarctica. The law tightens the requirements for ships entering the Antarctic waters, and requires them to obtain new IMO certificates to operate in this region. Here are some of the new requirements: ships working on diesel fuel may not enter the coastal waters; ships, disembarking passengers on the Antarctic coast should not carry more than 500 passengers, and number of people landing on the beach may not exceed 100 people at once. Bringing food to the continent, use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and approaching penguins and other wildlife of the continent are forbidden as well.