Tourism Overview

Scope of Antarctic Tourism — A Background Presentation

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The Antarctic tourism industry is generally considered to have begun in the late 1950s when Chile and Argentina took more than 500 fare-paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands aboard a naval transportation ship. The concept of 'expedition cruising,' coupled with education as a major theme, began when Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first traveler's expedition to Antarctica in 1966. Lindblad once said, "You can't protect what you don't know." He believed that by providing a first-hand experience to tourists you would educate them to the ecological sensitivity of the Antarctic environment and promote a greater understanding of the earth's resources and the important role of Antarctica in the global environment. The modern expedition cruise industry was born shortly thereafter in 1969 when Lindblad built the world's first expedition ship, the "Lindblad Explorer", specifically designed for carrying tourists to the Antarctic. Prior to this, human activity in Antarctica was limited to the early explorers, those seeking fortune in the exploitation of seals and whales, and more recently to scientific research and exploration. Antarctica's physical isolation, extreme climate and remarkable wilderness values are a great part of its attraction for tourism. From an industry he began in 1966, Lindblad's model of expedition cruising is still followed today by the majority of companies operating ship-borne tourism to Antarctica.

Brief Overview of IAATO

In 1991 the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed by seven tour operators who were active in Antarctica to act as a single organization dedicated to advocate, promote and practice environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica. Currently, there are more than 100 member-organizations representing many countries across the globe. IAATO's original visitor and tour operator guidelines served as the basis in developing Recommendation XVIII-1 of the Antarctic Treaty System, which includes guidance for Antarctic visitors and for non-governmental tour organizers. IAATO provides a forum for Antarctic tour operators to come together to continually develop the highest standards and best practices to better protect the Antarctic environment. IAATO has been represented every year at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) since its founding in 1991. IAATO presents its annual report and an overview of tourism activities each year at the ATCM. The papers along with the annual tourism statistics, membership directory and Visitor and Tour Operator Guidelines can be found on IAATO's website.

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Antarctic Destinations by Ships

Tourist expeditions have ventured to Antarctica every year since 1966. In recent years, these expeditions largely are conducted aboard some 40 vessels, each carrying from six to 500 passengers. The ships sail primarily to the Antarctic Peninsula region. Some itineraries also include South Georgia and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). These voyages generally depart from Ushuaia (Argentina), Port Stanley (Falkland Islands) or to a lesser extent from Punta Arenas (Chile), Buenos Aires (Argentina) or Puerto Madryn (Argentina).

Voyages to Antarctica also have included larger passenger vessels (carrying from 500 to 3,000 guests), which conduct "cruise-by" or sightseeing cruises only, without landing. Yacht travel to Antarctica is also popular, with nearly all itineraries in the Antarctic Peninsula, and using Ushuaia as a port.

Several expeditions take place outside the Peninsula region each season. The Spirit of Enderby, has been operating voyages in the Ross Sea Region and the New Zealand and Sub Antarctic Islands for many years, departing out of Bluff, New Zealand. The Orion also offers voyages to Antarctica via the Ross Sea from Hobart, Australia. Since the 1970s there have been occasional voyages from the Peninsula to the Ross Sea, usually including New Zealand and Australian Sub-Antarctic islands. Hobart (Australia), Bluff and Lyttelton-Christchurch (New Zealand) are the most common gateway cities to the Ross Sea Region and East Antarctica. Occasionally there have been departures from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (South Africa) and Fremantle/Perth (Australia).

For a complete list of IAATO endorsed vessels and aircraft see the Member Vessel Directory on the IAATO website. Antarctic visits are mainly concentrated at ice-free coastal zones over the five-month period from November to March. Visits ashore are generally of short duration (+/- 3 hours), of moderate intensity (<100 people), and of variable frequency. Typically there are 1-3 landings per day. Landings are made using Zodiacs (Jacques Cousteau type rubber inflatable crafts) or, in the case of a few vessels, also by helicopter. Other activities by visitors to Antarctica include mountain climbing, camping, kayaking and scuba diving from tourist vessels.

Shore visits are supervised and conducted by shipboard staff, which typically includes one staff member for each 10-20 passengers. Such staff generally includes ornithologists, marine biologists, general biologists, geologists, glaciologists, historians and naturalists. Site selection and conduct of visits ashore are detailed in our standard operating procedures, environmental impact assessments prepared by all IAATO members.

Shipboard tourism provides a legitimate means, within the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, to meet the tourism demand without the need for permanent infrastructure and with limited residence time, especially compared to science and logistics activities. 'This is possible through the availability of small, specialized vessels, well suited for polar environments that provide an optimal means to conduct tourism activities in a safe and well-managed way. Education is an important component of any Antarctic expedition. Ship-based expeditions provide an opportunity for visitors to experience a wide range of areas of interest, including wildlife sites, historic sites, active research stations, and sites of exceptional wilderness and aesthetic value.

The geographic scope of tourism activities in the Antarctic Peninsula region can be divided roughly into several sub areas:

  • South Orkneys Including Laurie, Coronation Islands
  • Elephant Island Including nearby islands
  • South Shetland Islands Including Deception, Livingston, King George, Low and Smith Islands
  • Northeast Antarctic Peninsula From Cape Dubouzet (63 16'S, 57 03'W) to James Ross Island
  • Northwest Antarctic Peninsula From Cape Dubouzet (63 16'S, 57 03'W) to the north end of Lemaire Channel
  • Southwest Antarctic Peninsula From the north end of Lemaire Channel to the area of Marguerite Bay (67 34'S)

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Land Tourism

For descriptions of IAATO air and land-based tourism operators to the Antarctic, see the IAATO Membership Directory, specifically Operators Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), Arctic Trucks, The Antarctic Company (TAC) and White Desert.

Tourism Statistics

Since IAATO's inception, records of tour itineraries and site visits have been maintained, a valuable resource that is available to researchers. According to these records, approximately 200 sites including 20 research stations have been visited in the Antarctic Peninsula region since 1989. About 50 of these sites have received more than 100 visitors in any one season and about the same number have been visited just once. A cursory examination of the tour data indicates that visits are concentrated at less than 35 sites. 

According to current information, Antarctica is likely to remain a specialized and relatively expensive niche destination offered by a limited number of experienced operators focusing on educational voyages to areas of natural and wilderness value. IAATO vessels also transport dozens scientists per year to the Antarctic and Sub Antarctic islands.


The benefits derived from responsible tourism, such as better knowledge and appreciation of the region are substantial. The wildlife-rich coastline, snow-covered mountains, glaciated landscapes, and extreme weather of this physically remote and magical part of the world lend this region remarkable wilderness and aesthetic value for the adventurous traveler.

Join us for a journey to a remarkable area of the world, and become an "Ambassador" for the conservation of the Antarctic environment.

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