Antarctica stands icy and glistening at the bottom of the planet as a truly special travel destination—and an increasingly popular one. As farflung as the Earth’s landmasses come, it remains a place that comparatively few people have visited firsthand, but each year brings greater and greater numbers of sightseers, keen to experience the last true wilderness and its astonishing scenery and wildlife.

Compared to other corners of the globe, the timeline of Antarctic tourism is pretty darn short. People didn’t even lay eyes on the White Continent until 1820, and needless to say leisure travel wasn’t exactly on the radar in this staggeringly remote, ice-ruled polar realm for many decades afterward. Antarctica long remained a little-seen realm mainly drawing adventurers, whalers, sealers, and—mainly from the early 20th century onward—scientists.

The dawn of true Antarctic tourism came in January of 1966, with the first-ever expedition cruise to the White Continent led by Lars-Eric Lindblad, a Swede who came to the United States in the 1950s and there established a tour company, Lindblad Travel.

As Lindblad’s son Sven told Elite Traveler, Lars-Eric hatched the plan to lead a tour down to the bottom of the world in the early 1960s, around a campfire in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Lindblad asked his guests where they’d like him to bring them next, and a woman answered: “Why not Antarctica?”

The inaugural 1966 expedition cruise led by Lindblad—documented on film, by the way—went down on a specially chartered ship of the Argentine Navy, the Lapataia. Three years later, Lindblad began leading cruises on the first vessel purpose-built for Antarctic cruising: the ice-strengthened MV Lindblad, which continued to ferry sightseers into the 21st century. (It sank due to human error in the Bransfield Strait in 2007.)

Lindblad’s expeditions launched the era of sightseeing tours in Antarctica, and by the late 1980s four operators were leading cruises into these polar waters. In 1985, a company began running the first tourism flights to Antarctica, bringing clients to a field camp in the interior for the purposes of mountaineering, skiing, and the like.

Cruise ship bow

Cruising towards the South Pole

In 1991, the parties signed on to the Antarctic Treaty adopted an important addition to that regulatory system: the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Fully implemented by 1998, this protocol declared Antarctica a “natural reserve” and laid out a variety of guidelines and requirements for the continued protection of the White Continent’s largely pristine state. Those guidelines and requirements applied to the growing tourism industry as well as all other human activities in the Antarctic.

Prompted by the adoption of the Protocol, seven tour companies active in Antarctica at that time established that same year the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which, per the IAATO website, is “a global, non-profit industry alliance dedicated to safe and responsible private-sector travel to the White Continent.”

Minimizing the impacts of tourism on Antarctica and upholding the tenets of the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection help guide the IAATO’s efforts. These range from ensuring the most rigorous of training for guides and other staff to supporting scientific work (many scientists and staff of Antarctica’s research bases hop rides on tour vessels to reach the White Continent, for example).

Today IAATO comprises better than 100 members representing the following globe-spanning countries:

  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • France
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • China
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom (and the British Overseas Territory of the Falkland Islands)
  • United States

As of 2019-2020, according to IAATO records, nearly 50 tour operators are active in Antarctica, with a fleet of some 63 vessels making more than 400 voyages to the White Continent that season.

Most tourism to Antarctica takes place by ship, with IAATO-registered sightseeing vessels categorized as traditional expedition ships carrying 12 to 200 passengers and making landfall (C1 vessels); midsize ships carrying 201-500 and making landfall (C2 vessels); large cruise ships carrying 500-plus passengers without making landings (CR vessels); and small sailing or motor yachts ferrying a dozen or fewer passengers (YA vessels).

The majority of Antarctic sightseeing cruises embark from South America and head for the Antarctic Peninsula, potentially visiting the Falklands, South Georgia, and other islands en route. But some ships proceed deeper into polar waters, crossing the Antarctic Circle and foraying into the Weddell or Ross seas; a relative handful journey along the coast of East Antarctica.

Some Antarctic tourists leaving from South America skip the ship-borne crossing of the Drake Passage and fly to the South Shetland Islands, thereafter joining a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. And some operators lead flights into the Antarctic interior for mountain-climbing, visiting the South Pole, and other bucket-list adventures.

Tents on the snow

Camping in Neko Harbour

The White Continent has grown in popularity as travelers hunger for new, exotic locations and interest in this comparatively untouched wilderness—not least in this era of climate change and heightened concern over humanity’s impact on the biosphere—continues to mount.

The IAATO keeps record of how many tourists go to Antarctica each year. The first tourism season after the organization’s establishment, 1992-1993, saw 6,704 tourists make landings in Antarctica courtesy of 10 tour operators and 59 voyages.

During the aforementioned 2019-2020 season—when the sightseeing fleet had ballooned past 60 vessels and voyages numbered in the hundreds—almost 60,000 tourists made landfall in Antarctica, with another 18,420 cruise-only passengers enjoying the sights from offshore.

There are both positive and negative impacts of tourism in Antarctica, as anywhere. Experiencing the White Continent firsthand—its fluted icebergs, looming ice-shelves, seal colonies, penguin towns, ice-armored summits, whale-plowed leads and bays—inspires vital awareness of how precious, and how vulnerable, this incredible place is. Part of the IAATO’s mission, for example, is using responsible tourism to “create a corps of ambassadors for the continued protection of Antarctica.”

But the chance to see the dreamscape that is Antarctica comes with some heady responsibility. That’s only as it should be, given the White Continent is the last great subaerial wilderness on Earth. Everybody coming here—researchers, tour operators, guides, and tourists—must do their part to lighten their impact on the landscape and seascape and their ecosystems.

Choosing an Antarctic experience via an IAATO outfit is fundamental to responsible ecotourism. The IAATO maintains an excellent collection of online resources focused on visitor guidelines for Antarctica, well worth checking out even if you’re only in the early stages of considering such a trip.

Indeed, there’s plenty you can do before leaving to ensure you’ll be lessening your footprint in the Antarctic as much as possible. That includes selecting environmentally conscientious products such as reusable items, non-plastic packaging, and eco-friendly formulations and fabrics.

It also means taking steps to avoid bringing any unwanted living cargo along with you. After all, exotic (i.e., non-native) species are a major risk to the Antarctic ecosystem—some 200 have already been introduced to this remotest continent, most notably plants such as grasses and sedges and invertebrates such as midges and fruit flies—and it’s all too easy to transport seeds or insects in your clothing and gear. Thoroughly cleaning your belongings before your departure helps lower the chance of spreading such pests to and around the White Continent. While traveling, meanwhile, abide by the cleaning/decontamination protocol established by your operator, and generally stay aware of when you may be picking up organic matter on your clothing or equipment; clean such debris off before moving on to another site.

Penguin parent with chicks

Penguin family in Port Lockroy

Enjoying Antarctica’s spectacular wildlife responsibly means giving animals an adequate amount of space and doing everything possible to avoid altering their behavior, even minimally. If you flush a seabird or startle a hauled-out seal into the water, you’re forcing these creatures to expend valuable energy, and also very likely boosting stress hormones.

Tour operators are, of course, expected to shoulder much of the burden of navigating respectfully around wildlife: keeping vessels a minimum distance from animals (a contextual judgment), avoiding pursuing or boxing in dolphins and whales, keeping travel lanes amid bird or seal rookeries clear, and so on. But tourists themselves must always bear in mind that their individual actions can definitely disturb animals, and aside from following all instructions from guides, they should be familiar with responsible wildlife-watching guidelines on their own.

Other essential—and hopefully common-sense—practices for lightening your impact on the Antarctic environment include leaving all rocks, egg shells, and other natural objects where they lie; keeping close tabs (and a tight grip) on your belongings to avoid littering; and being sure not to deface or otherwise disturb historical sights and artifacts, not to mention scientific instruments and infrastructure.

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