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The History of IAATO

In 1991, seven companies that had already been operating expeditions to Antarctica for several years founded the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators – a global, non-profit industry alliance dedicated to safe and responsible private-sector travel to the White Continent. Today IAATO’s membership is comprised of more than 100 respected companies from across the world, each working to ensure the protection and preservation of the unique place that is Antarctica.

The Founding of IAATO

IAATO was founded after the signing of the Antarctic Environmental Protocol earlier in 1991. This Protocol established rigorous standards beyond those already outlined in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and provided the framework for the continued protection of the Antarctic environment.

Joining together enabled the individual companies to pool their resources and also engage their respective governments to develop substantive regulations and guidelines compatible with the best practices that were already being followed in the field.

And so began IAATO’s mission to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally friendly private-sector travel to the Antarctic.

Growth of the Tourism Industry

Commercial tourism to Antarctica started in the late 1950s, when Chilean and Argentine naval vessels on resupply missions to research stations began accepting fare-paying passengers. In these early days, about 500 passengers visited the South Shetland Islands each season.

In 1969, the first vessel specifically made for the purpose of taking fare-paying passengers to Antarctica was built. This was the the ice-strengthened m/v Lindblad Explorer. She paved the way for tourists to visit and enjoy the world’s last pristine continent through “expedition cruising”. The industry defines expedition cruising as cruising which also incorporates education as a major theme.

By the late 1980s, there were four companies conducting ship-borne tours to the Antarctic. In 1985, a land operator pioneered the first commercial tourism flights. These flights took guests to a seasonal inland field camp for guided climbs, ski expeditions and other adventurous activities.

In the 1991-92 season when IAATO was founded, approximately 6,400 tourists visited Antarctica. The four companies had grown to six, overseeing 10 vessels; along with the land operator who was still running inland flights. Members continued to join steadily.

The 2013-14 season saw over 37,000 travelers carried by 48 IAATO member operators, offering a diverse range of vessels and activities. This included expedition cruise ships, sailing and motor yachts; air-cruise voyages, “cruise-only” voyages aboard large cruise ships; and multi-day land expeditions in the continent’s interior.



Today, IAATO’s membership is truly international. Member companies hail from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States and the U.K. Overseas Territory-Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).

There are ship and land operators, ship agents, travel agents, tourism bureaus, government offices, travel companies that charter ships and airplanes from existing operators, conservation organizations and expedition management companies.

IAATO members subscribe to the belief that the ultimate protection and conservation of Antarctica largely depends upon the sound policy to which all Treaty nations adhere. They work diligently to establish extensive operational procedures and guidelines, including:

  • Regulations and restrictions for numbers of people ashore
  • Minimum staff-to-passenger ratios
  • Development of site-specific, activity and wildlife watching guidelines
  • Requirements for pre- and post-visit activity reporting
  • Passenger, crew and staff briefings
  • Requirements of previous Antarctic experience for expedition staff, ship’s command and Bridge officers
  • Contingency planning
  • Emergency medical evacuation plans

IAATO’s focus on conservation, management and education promotes a greater worldwide understanding and protection of the Antarctic. Our goal is to leave it as pristine and majestic for future generations as it is today.

This effort is unique, and the challenge to maintain environmentally responsible tourism exists to this extent in no other region of the world. The sharing of best practices — based on decades of combined operating experience — demonstrate that environmentally responsible tourism is possible in remote and fragile wilderness areas.

Many IAATO guidelines and operating procedures have since been adopted as regulations by the Antarctic Treaty nations.


IAATO and its members work closely with Antarctic Treaty Parties, the media and environmental organizations to not only represent the industry but to enhance public awareness and concern for the conservation of the Antarctic environment.

Member companies provide logistic and scientific support to national Antarctic programs and Antarctic organizations. With over 200 departures annually to Antarctica, tour vessels provide a cost-effective platform of opportunity for researchers and science programs. Each season Antarctic tour vessels transport 100 or more scientists, support and heritage conservation staff from many national Antarctic programs. In addition, members of the Antarctic Site Inventory Project (Oceanites) and other conservation teams are provided with accommodations, transport and access to visitor sites. Members also transport equipment and supplies, including materials for stations, research camps and other projects. Vessels are made available to national Antarctic programs before or after the regular tour season for charter work.

Tour operators and passengers also make direct financial contributions to scientific and conservation organizations active in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic, including Save the Albatross, UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust, South Georgia Heritage Trust, Last Ocean, Mawson’s Huts Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, and College of the Atlantic’s Humpback Whale Identification Project.

IAATO continues to focus activities in support of its mission statement to ensure effective day-to-day management of member activities in Antarctica; educational outreach, including scientific collaboration; and development and promotion of Antarctic tourism industry best practices. In addition, IAATO strives to achieve the goal of having visitors return home as ambassadors for Antarctica, serving as champions for conservation efforts to protect the White Continent.

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