For many adventure travelers Antarctica is the ultimate destination. After all, the other six continents are fairly easy to get to, and its not at all unusual to visit those places on a variety of independent or organized excursions. But Antarctica takes some effort – not to mention a considerable amount of money – which puts it out of the realm of possibility for a lot of travelers.
That said however, thousands of people do visit the frozen continent each austral summer thanks to Antarctic cruise operators like Quark Expeditions and travel guides such as Adventure Network International. Many of those companies are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an organization that is dedicated to promoting safe and sustainable tourism to Antarctica. Over the years, the IAATO has helped to draft important regulations and guidelines for its members which are designed to keep travelers safe while protecting the fragile environment of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic itself.
Antarctica By The Numbers
Each year, the IAATO releases some interesting statistics on the most recent Antarctic season, which typically begins in November and runs through February. Over that period of time, visitors to the region will do everything from take a luxury cruise to skiing hundreds of miles to the South Pole, with plenty of other options in-between.Those visitors have discovered that Antarctica is a demanding and unforgiving place at times, but that it is also an extremely beautiful and rewarding one too.
The most interesting number to come out of the 2016 IAATO's report is that 38,478 people visited the Antarctic during that season. That represents an increase of 4.6% over the previous year, but is well below the peak season of 2007-2008, when 46,265 people made the journey to the bottom of the world. That said however, the organization projected that 43,885 people would travel there during the 2016-2017 season as interest in the region grows amongst adventure travelers, and more people find the discretionary income that would allow them to visit such a remote location.
Cruising the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Peninsula
Perhaps even more interesting however is what all of those travelers are actually up to in the Antarctic. The IAATO says that the vast majority of them are simply there to cruise the waters of the Southern Ocean and explore the rugged coastline found along the frozen continent. According to the organizations statistics, only about 1.1% of visitors actually leave the coastline behind and explore the interior of the continent. That's due to the fact that Antarctica's more remote regions are difficult to reach and weather conditions are even harsher than they are along the coast.
The other 98.9% of visitors stick to the Antarctic Peninsula, with some never even leaving their cruise ship to step foot on shore. The trends do show however, that seaborne journeys that offer passengers the option to disembark from their ships are on the rise. Those options only exist on vessels carrying fewer than 500 passengers however, which is in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty System.
Americans and Chinese are the two nationalities that visit Antarctica the most, with the former making up 33% of all visitors, while the latter comes in a distant second with 12%. The IAATO's numbers also offer further proof of China's growing prominence in the travel market, as those tourists have seen a sharp rise in recent years. Meanwhile, Australians, Germans, and British travelers round out the majority of the rest of the visitors to the Antarctic.
The IAATO has been in operation for more than 25 years, and continues to look for ways to improve the sustainable tourism industry in the Antarctic. One of the organization's biggest concerns at the moment is how to manage growth as interest in travel through the Antarctic grows. In addition to cruising the coastline, more adventurous options such as skiing the final degree to the South Pole are becoming more popular as well. Allowing that to happen while still protecting the remote and fragile landscapes remains an important goal, particularly as climate change becomes an even bigger concern for the region.
Sustainable Tourism in the Antarctic
In the press release announcing these statistics, IAATO Executive Director Dr. Kim Crosbie had this to say: “The last 25 years have shown that with careful management it is possible for visitors to experience Antarctica without having an adverse impact on the environment. However, the appetite to visit Antarctica is clearly still strong so IAATO must build on the foundations laid down in the past to meet future challenges and opportunities in order to support the long-term conservation of Antarctica.”
If you're planning on visiting the Seventh Continent sometime in the future, be sure that who ever you travel with is a member of the IAATO. Those companies have pledge to uphold the standards of ethical and responsible tourism to the region, which runs the risk of being deeply impacted by the number of travelers who visit it on an annual basis.