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 helps to make it one of the ultimate bucket-list destinations.
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, 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 late-February or early-March. 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 a number of other adventurous 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.
Each year, the organization offers insights into not just how many people are traveling to the Antarctic, but where they come from and what they do while they are there. For instance, according to IAATO, during the 2018-2019 season, the total number of people who visited Antartica during that time frame was approximately 55,489. Of those, the majority came from the United States, although an emerging travel market in China makes that country the second largest group of Antarctica tourists. Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany rounded out the top five.
Of those, the majority visit the Antarctic Peninsula, traveling through the Ross Sea, dropping below a latitude of 75ºS. A few more adventurous souls continued further along, visiting Cape Evans and the Ross Ice Shelf, which are at 77ºS latitude and 81ºS latitude as well.
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. IAATO members also adhere to a very strict set of guidelines to ensure that all guests come and go without leaving an impact on the environment in any way.
As mentioned, Americans and Chinese are the two nationalities that visit Antarctica the most, with the former making up more than 30% of all visitors, while the latter comes in a distant second with 14% of Antarctic travelers. 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. Australia, the U.K. and Germany have held down the remaining three spots for quite some time as well.
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 throughout the Antarctic continues to rise.
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 across the region.
Beyond those concerns however, the organization also takes a vested interest in protecting the wildlife that exists in the region. To that end, it has adopted rules and regulations governing how close the cruise ships operated by member companies can come to the whales that inhabit the Southern Ocean for example. It also has stipulations covering the size and duration of landing parties, their proximity to penguins and other birds, as well as a host of protocols that must be adhered to when departing or returning to the ship.
Sustainable Tourism in the Antarctic
At the heart of everything that IAATO does is the desire to allow adventure travelers to visit the last truly wild and unspoiled place on the planet. But, in order to do so, the organization and its members, recognize that the Antarctic needs to be protected and cared for. That is completely possible, provided everyone involved—including tour operators, guides, staff, and travelers—adhere to sustainable tourism practices. In doing so, it is possible for modern day travelers to visit this remote location and return home, leaving it in at least as good of a condition as it was when they arrived.
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.