History of IAATO

The Founding of IAATO

Seven companies that had already been operating expeditions to Antarctica for several years founded the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators in 1991. The main impetus behind forming a global, non-profit industry association was two-fold:

  • Firstly, the signing of the Antarctic Environmental Protocol in early 1991 by the Antarctic Treaty nations established rigorous standards beyond those already outlined in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which designated Antarctica as a "natural reserve dedicated to peace and science." The Protocol provided the framework for the continued protection of the Antarctic environment.
  • Secondly, by joining together, the companies were able to pool resources and lobby their national 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, promote and practice safe and environmentally private-sector travel to the Antarctic.

Origins of the Industry

Commercial tourism to Antarctica started in the late 1950s when 500 or so fare-paying passengers traveled aboard Chilean and Argentine naval vessels each season to visit the South Shetland Islands on re-supply missions to research stations. The first vessel specifically built for the purpose of taking fare-paying passengers to Antarctica was the ice-strengthened m/v Lindblad Explorer built in 1969. She paved the way for tourists to visit and enjoy the world's last pristine continent by means of "expedition cruising" — defined by the industry as cruising coupled with education as a major theme.

By the late 1980s, four companies were conducting ship borne tourism to the Antarctic as well as one land operator who pioneered commercial tourism flights to Antarctica in 1985. These flights took guests to a seasonal inland field camp for guided climbs, ski expeditions and other adventurous activities.

By the 1991-92 season when IAATO was founded, approximately 6,400 tourists visited Antarctica, traveling aboard ten different expedition ships operated by six operators plus the land-based activities of the one land operator. New members continued to join at a steady pace.


Today, IAATO's membership is truly international and comprised of more than 100 respected companies 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). Membership includes 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.

Members are subscribed to the belief that the ultimate protection and conservation of Antarctica will largely depend upon sound policy to which all Treaty nations adhere. To advocate and promote safe and environmentally responsible operations, members have worked diligently to establish extensive operational procedures and guidelines, including regulations and restrictions on numbers of people ashore; minimum staff-to-passenger ratios; development of site-specific, activity and wildlife watching guidelines; as well as requirements for pre- and post-visit activity reporting; passenger, crew and staff briefings; previous Antarctic experience for expedition staff, ship's command and Bridge officers; contingency planning; emergency medical evacuation plans; and more.

IAATO's focus on conservation, management and education promotes a greater worldwide understanding and protection of the Antarctic with the goal of leaving 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.

The 2013-14 season saw over 37,000 travelers carried by 48 IAATO member operators offering a diverse range of activities. This includes cruising by means of expedition cruise ships or sailing and motor yachts; air-cruise voyages; "cruise-only" voyages aboard large cruise ships; and multi-day land expeditions in the continental interior.


The association 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.