Analysis - October 31, 2006



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October 2006


Print Facts and figures, Geographic markets,

Antarctica 2006-2007: Another record-breaking season ahead

A Tourism Intelligence Network expert specialized in polar tourism, Alain A. Grenier sketches an overview of the Antarctica tourism industry. A PhD in Sociology and formerly an associate professor at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, he is now a professor in the Department of Tourism and Urban Studies at the UQAM School of Business Administration.

With the arrival of the austral summer in November, tourists – more specifically, cruise passengers – are once again heading to Antarctica.

The majority of Antarctic cruises take place in the Peninsula area, which is blessed with a less severe climate and a greater diversity of attractions (i.e. fauna, flora and a large number of scientific bases and historic sites). In contrast, the other tourism area, the more remote Ross Sea region, features almost exclusively historic sites.

In addition to the more traditional cruise programs combining observation and hikes ashore, a variety of new activities have started to appear in recent years, including scuba diving, sea kayaking, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding and camping. It is impossible to say, at this point, if these new activities are the result of the arrival of younger and more active visitors, or if the new tourism profile is emerging in response to the products offered by tour operators. What is certain, however, is that Antarctic tourism is growing.


Compared to the last austral summer (2005-2006), the number of cruise tourists has risen by 12%(4) . This year, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which represents 95% of the organizers involved in Antarctic tourism, expects nearly 38,000 visitors to Antarctica from mid-November to early March(4):

  • 27,575 tourists will participate in an Antarctic cruise with shore excursions (mainly in the Peninsula area)
  • 7,500 tourists will take part in a cruise only (no shore excursion)
  • 1,050 tourists will purchase a land tour (skiing, alpinism, etc., in the Antarctic’s interior)
  • 1,600 tourists will participate in a sightseeing flight (these flights, generally based in Australia, do not land on the continent and involve large planes like the Boeing 737-200 and 747-400, flying at about 2000 feet (610 m) above the Antarctic coast)

More than any other, polar cruises continue to dominate the Antarctic tourism market, with the number of passengers increasing year after year (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Source: IAATO (2006b)

While polar cruise tourism will continue to increase in the Antarctic Peninsula during the 2006-2007 season, the number of visitors to the Ross Sea region is expected to decline slightly(4). Compared to the 42 million visitors who entered the United States in 2004(7), the data regarding tourism in Antarctica – a continent 30% larger than the surface of the USA, may appear insignificant. To understand the importance of the figures presented above, it is necessary to put them into the proper polar tourism context.

A sensitive continent

Antarctica is a continent like no other. This continent, the only one without an indigenous human population, also has extremely limited surface flora and fauna (in species diversity). In summer, when the seas surrounding the polar continent are free of ice, Antarctica and its Sub-Antarctic islands cover an area of 13.6 km2. More than 98% of the continent’s surface is permanently hidden under a cover of ice(1)(3). This ice sheet – the biggest on Earth – may reach a thickness of up to 4.7 km in certain areas and contains no less than 90% of the plant’s fresh water reserves(3).

Tourism, like most other human activities, takes place during the very brief polar summer. This is also the reproduction season for most of the continent’s animal species, which are very abundant at this time of year. As a result, the less than 2% of Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic island lands free of ice and snow become very precious for both fauna and visitors (scientists and tourists alike). In such a context, there is a very good chance that fauna (and, to a lesser degree, flora) could be negatively impacted. The scientific community, however, remains divided over the extent of this impact.

Negative Impact

In addition to the pollutants released when tourism vehicles (ships, inflatable boats, helicopters, large and small airplanes) burn fossil fuel, the main disruptions directly attributed to tourism activities include soil disturbances (more limited in the Antarctic than in the Arctic) and fauna harassment (mainly birds). It is important to stress, however, that atmospheric pollution remains the biggest threat to polar ecosystems. Apart from the pollution caused by burning fuel to transport tourists, most of the air pollutants affecting Antarctica are produced outside area and can therefore not be attributed directly to tourism.

Trying to protect the very resources the industry depends upon, the IAATO has created a visitor’s code of conduct entitled “Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic.” This recommends, among other things, the distances one should respect when observing the various fauna species. In the past, some observers(2)(6) have stressed that the guidelines are not applied consistently. The problem is that the code is enforced by guides, who must also see to their customers’ satisfaction. Many of these customers have a hard time containing their enthusiasm once ashore. Other visitors, who have invested considerable sums of money to reach these natural areas, sometimes feel they have earned the right to approach wildlife beyond the distances allowed. According to IAATO(4), however, the activities of its members have “no more than a minor or transitory impact on the Antarctic environment.”(4)

The organization worries, however, about the 5% of Antarctic operators who have not joined IAATO and therefore do not apply the visitors’ code of conduct. During the 2005 2006 austral summer, 4,639 visitors and an unknown number of small boat passengers set foot on Antarctica with no public record of their visit (4). In its annual report, IAATO(4) expressed concern over two non-member vessels, each carrying 500 passengers, who made shore excursions in spite of the IAATO regulation limiting site access to ships carrying more than 200 passengers.

The tourism forecasts made by IAATO for the 2006-2007 austral summer indicate that the travelling public’s desire for Antarctic adventures knows no limits other than those imposed by the number of ships and places available for such journeys. Negative impacts, as well as incidents involving tourism activities such as the sinking of the Bahia Paraiso in 1989, remind us, however, that tourism growth in such a remote and isolated place as Antarctica requires safe, sustainable management approaches.

(1) – Cessford, Gordon (1997) “Antarctic Tourism – A Frontier for Wilderness Management,” International Journal of Wilderness, Vol. 3, No. 3, USA, pp. 7-11.
(2) – GRENIER, Alain A. (1998) “Ship-Based Polar Tourism in the Northeast Passage: A Case Study, ” Publication in the social sciences, University of Lapland, Rovanieni, Finland.
(3) – HANSOM, James D. and GORDON, John E. (1998) “Antarctic Environments and Resources – A Geographical Perspective,” Longman: UK.
(4) – IAATO (2006a) “IP 86 IAATO Overview of Antarctic Tourism 2005-2006 Rev 1,” International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (Website), 21 p.[]
(5) – IAATO (2006b) “Tourism Statistics, Trends 1992-2007,” International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, [
(6) – VUILLEUMIER, François (1996) “Negative Impact of Tourism on Antarctic Animals and Plants,” Southern Connection Newsletter, July, No. 10.
(7) – WTO (2005) “Tourism Market Trends, 2005 Edition, Annex,” World Tourism Organisation. []

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