Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Antarctica, responsible tourism, and the work IAATO does.

What is IAATO?

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators is a member trade association that represents Antarctic tour operators and others organizing and conducting travel to Antarctica. It was originally founded in 1991 by seven private tour operators wanting to join together to practice and promote safe and environmentally responsible travel to this remote and delicate region of the world.

Membership today comprises more than 100 respected companies from across the world.

In 2021 IAATO will celebrate its 30th year of advocating and promoting safe and environmentally responsible private sector travel to Antarctica. It operates within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty System, including the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, along with IMO Conventions and similar international and national laws and agreements.

These are designed to promote travel to the region that is not only safe but also that all of the necessary precautions are taken to minimize impact on the environment and wildlife. This effort is unique, and the challenge to maintain environmentally responsible tourism exists to this extent in no other region of the world.

Read more about Who We Are.

What is IAATO’s mission?

IAATO’s mission is to:

  • Advocate and promote safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica
  • Operate within the parameters of the Antarctic Treaty System along with IMO Conventions and similar international and national laws and agreements
  • Have no more than a minor or transitory impact on the Antarctic environment;
  • Foster continued cooperation among its members
  • Provide a forum for the international, private-sector travel industry to share their expertise, opinions, and best practices
  • Create a corps of ambassadors for the continued protection of Antarctica by offering the opportunity to experience the continent first-hand
  • Support science in Antarctica through cooperation with National Antarctic Programs, including logistical support and research and to foster cooperation between private-sector travel and the international science community in the Antarctic
  • Help the Membership employ the best qualified staff and field personnel through continued training and education
  • Encourage and develop international acceptance of evaluation, certification and accreditation programs for Antarctic personnel.

Read more about Our Mission.

Where is IAATO based?

IAATO’s offices are located in Providence, Rhode Island at 225 Dyer Street. Some members of the IAATO Secretariat work from home in the US or UK. The quickest way to contact us is via our online enquiry form.

IAATO's Membership
How can I find out if a tour operator is a member of IAATO?

Our Membership Directory has full details of all our current members. Not all companies that take visitors to Antarctica are IAATO members, however the vast majority are.

What is the difference between the two types of membership?

IAATO has two types of membership: Operators and Associates.

  • Operators are experienced organizers that:
    • Operate their own travel programs to the Antarctic
    • Have fulfilled certain membership and operational requirements
  • Associate Members do not operate tour programs themselves, but book into other members’ programs. They may be:
    • Tour operators
    • Travel agents
    • Organizers

Associates may also be other companies or individuals with an interest in supporting Antarctic tourism and IAATO’s objectives. This includes:

  • Port agents/ship agencies
  • Government tourism bureaus/tourist boards
  • Expedition management service providers
  • Conservation organizations
  • Product/service providers

There is also a Provisional Operator status for organizers that operate travel programs to Antarctica but are new to IAATO and have not yet met all of the membership and operational requirements. Once they have met these requirements, these companies can then apply for full Operator status.

Find out more about membership requirements on our How to Join section.

What is the benefit of traveling with an IAATO member?

IAATO members have demonstrated a commitment to follow the necessary precautions and protocols to visit Antarctica safely and responsibly, having minimal impact on the natural environment.

Protocols they subscribe to include (but are not limited to):

  • Proper staffing and necessary experience of staff and crew
  • How to approach and keep a safe distance from wildlife
  • The proper disposal of waste materials

In addition, our members have demonstrated they have the experience needed and contingency plans in place to anticipate and respond to emergency situations, should they arise.

IAATO operates within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty System, including the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, along with IMO Conventions and similar international and national laws and agreements. These are designed to promote travel to the region that is not only safe but also that all of the necessary precautions are taken to minimize impact on the environment and wildlife.

IAATO’s members share this commitment to the region. This commitment is combined with the authority of the Antarctic Treaty Parties to regulate tourism in their official capacity.

By choosing an IAATO member as a tour operator, you can be sure you’re undertaking travel to Antarctica in the most responsible way, helping to conserve this unique landscape for generations to come.

Read more about IAATO and its commitment to the Antarctic Treaty.

What standards do IAATO ship operators subscribe to?

All IAATO members are to meet all of the association’s standard operating procedures and established procedures and guidelines designed to promote safe and responsible operations in Antarctica.

Examples of this include:

  • Coordinating itineraries in advance through careful advance pre-season planning
  • Participating in the IAATO vessel tracking system, designed to enhance contingency response
  • Having adequate insurance and contingency plans in place
  • Hiring Bridge officers with appropriate experience

For a more comprehensive list, see Section X of the IAATO Bylaws.

Can a company lose its IAATO membership?

Yes. Being a member of IAATO is a privilege and companies must remain in good standing to retain their membership. The conditions of doing so are laid out in Section III of the IAATO Bylaws. These Bylaws allow for reprimand or change in membership status (e.g. probation or expulsion) after review by the Compliance and Dispute Resolution and Executive Committees and a vote by the members in good standing.

However, this is incredibly rare. Our membership is comprised of outstanding companies in all levels of membership who believe in IAATO’s mission and work hard to ensure excellence in their operations.

Regulations & Permits
Are drones allowed in Antarctica?

IAATO Members have agreed that they will not allow the recreational use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), in the unique coastal areas of Antarctica, until more is known about their responsible use. This ban will be reviewed annually in May to allow for potential technological advances and further developments within the regulatory community.

IAATO members allow the recreational use of authorized UAVs in the interior of Antarctica under strict and carefully controlled conditions.

Antarctic travellers interested in using a UAV for purposes other than recreational use in Antarctica must check with their tour operator or travel agent in advance of travel. As for all human activities in Antarctica, a permit is needed.

Non-IAATO members and private expeditions should contact their relevant Competent Authority or government agency if they intend to operate a UAV anywhere in or around the continent.

IAATO member operators must include an application to fly UAVs within their overall permit application. The difficulty for prospective UAV pilots is that Treaty Parties, and IAATO members, are concerned about their use in Antarctica; flying drones is a relatively new activity and while there are situations when they may be of value (e.g. science, ice reconnaissance for vessel navigation, education, including documentary film making), there are many questions still to be answered in terms of their potential impact on the environment. The use of UAVs is therefore in a state of development and, until more information is available, both the Competent Authorities and IAATO Member Operators are taking a precautionary approach when it comes to their operation. The intention is to devise a pragmatic policy framework that will allow safe and environmentally responsible use under controlled circumstances.

What permits are needed for Antarctica?

All human activities, whether for science or tourism, have to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment by a relevant Competent Authority/government agency. Critically, IAATO Member operators have agreed that their activities must have less than a minor or transitory impact on the environment. They submit permit applications annually to their Competent Authority/government agency and, if their planned activities meet all criteria, they are authorized and a permit granted.

What regulations are in place for ships traveling to Antarctica?

Rigorous standards apply to all vessel operators who intend to conduct travel to Antarctica. Tourism operators must notify their National Authority in advance of their plans in order for the government agency (in the U.S. this is the Department of State) to verify they have jurisdiction over the operation and then file a detailed environmental impact assessment (in the U.S. this is to the Environmental Protection Agency) to verify that their planned activity will have less than a minor or transitory impact on the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems — a requirement by the governments involved in managing Antarctica (these are the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties).

Additionally, all vessels must comply with applicable international marine legislation that applies to virtually all ships at sea, including compliance with fuel oil standards adopted within the International Maritime Organisation that require ships to burn lighter-grade fuels while in the Antarctic Treaty Area (the sea south of 60 South latitude). This requirement came into effect in 2011 and has required a number of the larger ships (cruise-only vessels, icebreakers, and expedition ships alike) to switch from burning heavy fuel oil to lighter-grade fuels, such as marine gas oil.

Travelling to Antarctica
Where do cruises depart from?

Most cruises depart from one of the gateway ports in southern South America, such as Ushuaia (Argentina), Punta Arenas (Chile) or Montevideo (Uruguay), to the scenic and wildlife rich northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. These cruises often include visits to the nearby Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and South Georgia. A limited number of cruises are operated to the Ross Sea side of the continent departing from Hobart, Australia or Lyttelton or Bluff, New Zealand. Occasionally a trip to the Peninsula will be offered that begins or ends in Cape Town or Port Elizabeth (South Africa), either at the start or end of the season as the ships are being repositioned for the Antarctic season.

Do you need a visa?

You don’t need a visa to travel to Antarctica itself, but you might need a visa for the country you intend to travel to Antarctica from. This is usually Argentina or Chile, although some operators depart from South Africa or New Zealand (see ‘Where do cruises depart from’, above). It depends on the country that issued your passport. Please check with relevant consulates and embassies before you travel and also check that you have adequate medical and travel insurance for your entire journey. Your operator will be able to offer advice.

What size are the ships traveling to Antartica?

IAATO members operate a range of vessels, which are categorized according to their passenger capacity:

  • C1 – Traditional expedition ships that carry 13-200 passengers and make landings
  • C2 – Mid-size vessels that carry 201-500 passengers and make landings
  • CR – Vessels that carry more than 500 passengers and do not make landings (i.e. cruise only)
  • YA – Sailing or motor yachts that carry up to 12 passengers

Our Vessel Directory lists all the vessels currently used by our members.

Can large cruise ships travel to Antarctica?

Yes. In addition to the stringent regulations outlined above, IAATO and the Antarctic Treaty Parties place an additional restriction on vessels carrying more than 500 passengers. These vessels are not allowed to land any passengers while in Antarctic waters. This means these operators are cruise-only.

Education & Research
Do cruises offer educational programs?

All operators are encouraged by IAATO and the governments who manage commercial tourism activities in Antarctica (the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties) to provide a focus on the enrichment and education of visitors about the environment and its protection. In line with this, all IAATO operators all offer educational programs.

Some operators offer lectures in languages other than English: for example French, German, Japanese, Spanish, etc. Lecturers and naturalists present presentations on topics that relate to the area visited, as well as on topics such as geology, glaciology, biology (seabirds and sea mammals), the history of Antarctic exploration, geopolitics, the Antarctic Treaty, and selected other topics.

IAATO expects its members to hire an expedition team comprised of individuals of whom have at least 80% relevant experience and 50% of whom have previous Antarctic experience.

Many of our members have won awards for the excellence of their educational programs. Some also offer children’s educational programs (usually offered on the holiday cruises around Christmas/New Year’s), with a children’s activity coordinator, where there are specialty programs and educational activities designed around the interests of younger travelers.

For specific information about the educational opportunities offered on each trip, please check with the individual operators.

Is it possible to visit the research stations in Antarctica?

There are many research stations in Antarctica, with most being located along the coastline or on the offshore islands, some of them operating all year round. Many have visitor arrangements by prior request of the tour operator.

Some of those visited in the past have included stations in the Antarctic Peninsula area including Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, the People’s Republic of China, Germany, Poland, the Russian Federation, the Republic of (South) Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay, and a few in the Ross Sea area (Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United States).

Visits include an opportunity to see and learn about the research being undertaken as well as life on an Antarctic base. Not all operators include visits to research stations, nor are they visited on every cruise. Check with the operator if this is of interest to you.

Are IAATO guides certified?

IAATO views training and experience as lynchpins of its mission: facilitating safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica. IAATO Members’ guides or expedition staff play a key role in the stewardship of the Antarctic. Their role includes introducing, educating and informing visitors about the unique Antarctic environment and its role in the global system — and all this with the robust best practices identified to help keep everyone safe and treading softly with minimal or no disturbance to the environment.

As such, IAATO has established an online field staff assessment and certification program. The online assessment is designed to augment the training and test the knowledge of staff on the contents of the IAATO Field Operations Manual.

IAATO expects its members to hire an expedition team comprised of individuals of whom have at least 80% relevant experience and 50% of whom have previous Antarctic experience.

How can I complete the field staff assessment and certification programme?

If you are a guide who has access to the IAATO ‘Field Staff’ section of the website due to being employed by an IAATO member tour operator, simply login and navigate to ‘Online Assessment’ which can be found in the ‘Field Staff’ Menu where you can find all of the information you will need to undertake this year’s Assessment.

If you are a guide but you are not employed by a current IAATO member tour operator, you can still undertake the field staff assessment and certification programme. To take the Online Assessment, you will need to create a new account by logging into the Online Assessments site directly. Once you have signed in, please change your password in the My Account section.

In case of any further queries please contact Operations.

Tourism in the Antarctic
How does tourism benefit the Antarctic?

Through the unique global partnership that is the Antarctic Treaty system, the entire continent is formally designated as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. Antarctica is regarded as the last great wilderness on our planet, still pristine with wildlife and landscapes that show little evidence of direct human activity. To visit, and operate in, an environment like this comes with a responsibility to do so carefully and with minimal impact.

IAATO has demonstrated through its work that environmentally responsible tourism is possible in remote and fragile wilderness areas. More than this, tourism is and should continue to be a driving force in Antarctic conservation.

First-hand travel experiences foster a better understanding of a destination where no indigenous population exists to speak for itself. Visitors — representing more than 100 different nationalities on average per season — return home as ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship and peace.

IAATO’s focus on protection, 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.

What is the Antarctic Treaty?

The Antarctic Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 at Washington, D.C. and entered into force on 23 June 1961. It designated the entire continent as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, creating an unprecedented global partnership that now includes nearly 50 countries.

Read more about the Antarctic Treaty.

How many ships visit Antarctica each year?

The number of ships varies from year to year. To facilitate the responsible management of human activity in Antarctica by Treaty Parties, IAATO annually submits Information Papers to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), which IAATO attends as an Invited Expert. They include a tourism overview paper which:

  • Details the scope of Antarctic tourism that took place during the past season
  • Provides an estimate for what is being planned for the upcoming season

You can find all of IAATO’s information papers here.

Alternatively, our Information section provides information on the scope of Antarctic tourism, as well as Antarctic destinations by ship and information on land tourism.

If you need any additional information, please contact us directly.