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Antarctica Has Become a Popular Destination. But Should You Actually Go?

A very layered answer coming up.

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ntarctica is the last place on the planet that’s relatively untouched. A place where howling winds have their own pitch and not a tree can be found on the vast expanse of land. It is inhospitable to humans as the driest, coldest, windiest, and highest continent. Ice up to three miles deep covers 98% of the continent. In winters, the temperature drops to -70-degrees Fahrenheit and the sun doesn’t rise. The sustained wind speeds can reach 200 m.p.h., more than any hurricane that has ever hit the U.S. 

But buried under ice are volcanoes, mountains, and valleys—plus, there is so much that’s unknown. Even though there are no terrestrial mammals, the wildlife on this ice landmass is so diverse that it inspires both awe and scientific curiosity. The crevasses, glaciers, and floating ice that you see on documentaries have become accessible—if you pick the right time to go (November-January), have a strong stomach (the seas are rough and Drake’s Passage is vomit-inducing), and have the sense of adventure of a mid-19th-century explorer.

Antarctica is far from a casual getaway. And the question that needs to be asked again and again is: Is it worth the environmental impact if travelers are only checking off a bucket-list item?

How Tourism Began 

In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, agreeing that the continent would stay free of any military activity, with no country staking a claim to the land (though seven countries have maintained territorial claims). The treaty called for international cooperation and scientific freedom, and it has successfully operated as a non-government region. Now 52 countries are signatories of this treaty. 

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The first expedition with 57 travelers arrived on the shores with Lars Eric Lindblad in 1966. The difficult journey had previously been made by scientists and explorers, and once the Swedish-American pioneer of remote travels chartered citizens to the end of the earth, commercial tourism kicked off. It became pivotal to keep Antarctica as unaffected as possible, and without a ruling government, the industry players stepped up to self-regulate.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed in 1991 by seven members to ensure safe and responsible travel to the continent. It now has more than 100 members, including cruise operators, travel agents, land-based operators, ship agents, and travel companies. 

Collective action is at the core of operations on the frozen continent.

Rising Tourism

According to IAATO, 74,401 people traveled to Antarctica with IAATO members in 2019-2020. Of these, 18,506 took cruises and didn’t set foot on the island. The numbers a decade ago were almost half—there were 37,858 visitors in the 2008-2009 season.

Aurora Expeditions, one of the founders of IAATO, has 25 expeditions to Antarctica this season, from October to March. U.K.-based luxury travel company Black Tomato’s co-founder Tom Marchant tells Fodor’s that the company organizes 20 private journeys to Antarctica every year. He says, “We’ve seen a notable and recent uptick in families inquiring about venturing to the wild frontiers of Antarctica together, often involving private charters that include submersibles and always including expert guides and naturalists on-board to ensure exploration is most impactful, but also sensitive to the terrain.”

Marchant gives an estimate of $24,050 per person, excluding international flights, for their Chile and Antarctica journey. There are cheaper options available, of course, and it depends on what you want out of your trip. 

Sumitra Senapathy, founder of womens’-only travel group WOW Club, says, “Most people get taken in by the cost-effectiveness of popular cruise liners who promise a voyage to Antarctica, but these passengers are not allowed to disembark anywhere, let alone do an Antarctica continent landing. In theory, they have done Antarctica, but have not actually stepped foot on it.”

Besides cheap cruises, there are even sightseeing flights on Qantas’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Australia to the southernmost continent. Tourist flights are not scheduled due to the glare from the ice and extreme weather conditions, though some have made it to the ice runway. Usually, cargo and supply jets that ferry resources for scientific research touchdown here. In December last year, an Airbus A340 made a landing on the tundra to get supplies to the luxury campsite of Wolf’s Fang

The signs are there: Antarctica is fast-tracking as a popular tourist destination, and overtourism has consequences the world has battled in many other areas. 

Related: Should You Take A Flight to Nowhere?

You Can’t Ignore Footprints

Let’s consider flights first. The aviation industry accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions. The number doesn’t seem so weighted in this context, but it is likely that the emissions could more than double by 2050. A 2019 report calculated that a flight from London to New York and back contributes to 986 kg (0.5 ton) of carbon per passenger. For context, an average person has a carbon footprint of 4 tons per year (the figure is a worrying 15 tons in the U.S.).

There’s also the problem of black carbon that’s making snow darker, which is leading to more melting. A study in February 2022 revealed that black carbon from research activities and tourism is accelerating snow-melting in Antarctica. The study specifies that local emissions around tourist landing sites and research facilities (76 stations with 5,500 people in summer) are accounting for the black carbon released from vessels, diesel power plants, planes, generators, helicopters, and trucks. 

Black carbon from research activities and tourism is accelerating snow-melting in Antarctica.

Climate scientist Dr. Samantha Buzzard, a lecturer at Cardiff University, studies the floating ice shelves of Antarctica and how vulnerable they are to sudden collapse due to climate change. She explains, “Black carbon can be produced by ships and planes traveling to Antarctica. As it’s darker than the snow, it causes more energy to be absorbed from the sun than would otherwise be, leading to more melting. We need more sustainable forms of transport, and more sustainable energy sources to avoid this.”

This is especially worrisome now that travel to Antarctica is becoming mainstream. More travelers are visiting, more members are joining IAATO, and the costs are going down as competition is rising. Which means more pressure on the land and a race in the future to escape crowds in search of “never-before” areas. 

A New York Times article highlighted in 2020 that an uptick in tourism in the unpredictable land of extremes can lead to severe consequences. In November 2007, a tourist ship hit an iceberg. It was carrying 154 passengers who spent four hours in lifeboats exposed to the elements as they waited to be rescued. All survived, thanks to the benign weather conditions and an unusually temperate sea, but the ship MS Explorer went down almost 5,000 feet. It raised concerns about tourism, sure, but the ship’s fuel also polluted the waters. According to one report, 50,000 gallons of diesel, 6,300 gallons of lubricant, and 260 gallons of gasoline were on board—a nightmare for the continent that has a fragile environment and unique wildlife that depends on its lack of human activity.

“It is absolutely essential that tourism is regulated in [the way scientific activity is regulated] to protect this fragile and relatively untouched environment, and that numbers are kept to a level such that there is not a large environmental impact,” Dr. Buzzard suggests.

But what is that number? And, where do we draw the line?

Be Extremely Responsible

It’s on you, dear traveler. If you go, how you’ll go, and what you’ll learn: all ethical questions worth asking, especially in this age of transformative, conscious travel.

Before planning a trip, you can confirm if the operator is listed in the IAATO membership directory and research their sustainability initiatives. Many operators work outside of the IAATO, but everyone needs a permit to visit. A good place to begin your exploration is with the cruise and how it is managed. IAATO demands its members to get timely permissions, assess their impact, manage their waste, have contingency plans, and use light-grade fuel, among other things. 

Cruise ships with more than 500 passengers aren’t allowed to make landings in Antarctica. It is also scheduled as such that no more than one ship at a time is at the landing site at one time, and no more than 100 passengers are allowed to disembark. The rules also state that a staff-passenger ratio of 1:20 has to be maintained.

In addition, the guidelines for travelers and operators are strict. You can’t touch anything, you can’t disturb wildlife, you can’t take anything or leave anything behind—the whole list of rules runs longer than this article, and it’s something you should memorize if you plan to travel there. Passengers get briefed about these protocols by their travel companies, most of whom are part of the IAATO and advocate safe, responsible tourism to Antarctica. You may not be able to disembark if the weather doesn’t permit it and these experiences are at the discretion of the experts on the cruise.

Sumitra Senapathy, of WOW Club, has never had any traveler disregarding protocol. “Not more than 40 to 60 passengers can disembark from the polar vessel during landings, so that the ship’s crew members can effectively ensure that rules are being followed and people do not stray off the track and accidentally disturb the animals. The remaining passengers get chances to disembark batch-wise, so that things are under control.”

Many expeditions also include citizen science programs. A combination of onboard lectures and on-shore expeditions led by naturalists, marine biologists, environmental scientists, and glaciologists can give travelers a perspective on climate change and how it threatens our future. Passengers can also aid researchers in observing and recording data, and learn about everything from penguins to microfibers to black carbon. 

All three tour operators we spoke with run these programs. Aurora Expeditions says, “Many gain a new appreciation for nature, environmental issues, and science, as well as a deeper understanding of the need to look after the beautiful and wild places that we visit.”

IAATO observes on its website that tourism benefits the continent. “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.”

A more engaging expedition will give you something more than pictures to take back home. 

Don’t Buy Into Last-Chance Tourism Ploys

There are places that are at risk of changing irreversibly. Climate change will flood cities and coastal areas, rendering some uninhabitable. But you have to consider one more thing: tourists rushing to see these places before they disappear are also causing harm that can’t be ignored. Mass tourism is a nagging worry for cities—thus more tourist taxes—and Antarctica needs to be largely left alone. If that means putting the continent on your personal No List, it’s not a bad bargain for a healthy planet.

It is true that Antarctica is melting, and it will have global consequences, with coastal areas being most affected by rising sea levels. But Antarctica won’t disappear in our lifetime, Dr. Buzzard reassures, and there is no rush to visit.

She also adds, “While I can appreciate that people want to see this environment for themselves, those considering travel should remember this is still a dangerous environment that is difficult to get to. There are many destinations where communities can benefit financially from tourism, so consider going somewhere you can have a positive impact on the local community, and appreciate the polar regions through Frozen Planet.”

Related: Antarctica 101: 15 Things You Need to Know Before You Go ‘On the Ice’