Antarctic Tourism

Antarctic tourism started in the late 1950s and tourism numbers remained in the low thousands until the 1990s when it began a steep and steady rise.

By the mid 2000s around 50,000 tourists and crew were visiting Antarctica annually.

The Global Financial Crisis has reduced numbers each year since 2008, and current estimates suggest this will not reverse until the 2012-13 summer. But despite this hiccup, a clear upward trend in tourism is evident.

This poses some problems. Large numbers of tourists increase pressures on Antarctic wildlife and ecosystems. Penguin breeding sites have become a target for large groups of sightseers, and often landing spots are in areas with fragile areas of plant life. Disturbance, trampling and local pollution have to be avoided. 

The Antarctic tourism industry has been re-shaped in the past decade, and now alongside the smaller ships, we see mega-liners capable of carrying thousands of people. These may not land people, but the pressures don’t just start when people are ashore.

Recent years have seen a number of tourism vessels involved in accidents, including one sinking.So far these have been small-medium vessels. Nobody has died and the pollution caused by these accidents has been minimal.

However, if a 110,000 tonne cruise liner with 3,000 people on board sinks, the prospects are not so good on any of these points.



Three types of tourism operators now operate in the Antarctic region –

  • Expedition vessels – These small-medium vessels carrying up to 500 tourists make landings around the Antarctic.

Environmental Concerns: marine pollution, risks of misadventure and difficulties of rescue, disturbance to wildlife, vegetation and scientific programmes ashore


Cruise liners – Liners have been cruising the world for decades, but it is only in the past 10 years that they have been seen in Antarctica.

Environmental Concerns: marine pollution and discharges, risks of misadventure and rescue (unlike traditional expedition vessels these are almost never ice-strengthened).


Aircraft – Air-supported tourism operations from South America, where smaller planes land well inland are becoming more and more common.

Environmental Concerns: environmental damage to unprotected areas, pressure to develop airstrips and hotels.



Who makes the rules? 

Formally, the states of the Antarctic Treaty System make up the rules. These rules are legally binding in these countries, and their companies or citizens flouting these rules can be called up in a court of law.  More detailed rules or guidelines are made by  the Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). This represents 100  Antarctic operators. These are self regulatory and not legally binding. 

Antarctic tourists and operators should abide by the Antarctic Treaty System’s environmental rules.

Below are some of the rules established by the Treaty:  

  • Ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to land tourists.
  • Ships with 500 or fewer passengers are restricted to one vessel at a time per site and may only land 100 passengers at a time.
  • Whilst on land, tourists must stay 5-10 metres from wildlife and avoid harmful interference.

While the Antarctic Treaty's rules provide a good framework for environmental protection, there are some areas where the rulebook needs to be updated to reflect the growing tourism industry .  

For example currently, the establishment of new landing sites is dictated by the industry as they look to exploit this continent’s natural beauty – and each year several new sites are established.

Furthermore, in the next decade or two, as pressure on this industry mounts, more landings, more ships and potentially the expansion of airborne tourism may open up a whole new raft of environmental problems.

As insurance against these potential developments, Forest & Bird believes we need -

  •  improved scientific knowledge of the actual impacts of tourism
  • stringent checks on compliance within the existing tourism regulations
  • a respectful tourist industry that sees Antarctica as first and foremost ‘a natural reserve devoted to peace and science’..