Tourism in Antarctica

This article about Antarctica’s tourism has been written by Laura Boyall and Benjamin Samingpai.

A trip to Antarctica is not a common holiday destination for many people. However, since the 1950s, there has been a growing number of individuals travelling to the southernmost continent. And then from the 1980s, the growth has been exponential with a 600% rise in travellers [1]. Each season Antarctica sees approximately 170,000 visitors from mostly English-speaking countries. However, there has been a recent rise in the number of tourists from China [2,3]. Click on the figure below to explore how Antarctica’s tourism changed in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons.

Pie chart of Antarctica's tourists nationalities

Since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, Antarctica has been designated as a place of peace and science, so this recent rise in tourism in Antarctica has sparked some debate about how sustainable tourism is. This article explains some of the steps which are taken to reduce the environmental impact of Antarctica’s tourism to ensure that more and more people can visit and see this unique icy continent [4].

Quark Expedition vessel in the background of two penguins. Quark are an Antarctica's tourism provider
Quark Expeditions vessel and two penguins. Derek Oyen

Managing Antarctica’s Tourism

Penguins huddling on some sea ice to see when partaking in Antarctica's tourism
Group of penguins on sea ice. Danielle Barnes

All human activity, including tourism in Antarctica, is governed by the Antarctic Treaty. This means that a set of rules and regulations are in place to manage Antarctica’s tourism to limit the environmental impacts on the continent [5]. An example of how tourism has been managed is the signing of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection, which came into effect in 1998 [6]. Alongside other important environmental rules laid out in this protocol, such as waste disposal and marine pollution, this protocol specifically ensures that popular tourist sites are safe and environmentally protected.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO)

IAATO Logo. Antarctica's Tourism Industry's largest operator

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) are the main tourism body for Antarctica, which are made up of seven of the largest Antarctic tour operators [7]. IAATO have a series of sustainable goals which are in line with the Protocol on Environmental Protection such as a limited impact on the Antarctic environment, they help spread awareness of environmental issues, and support Antarctic science with logistical support and research.

Sustainable Tourism Activities

Fluking right whale

There is a whole host of activities that tourists can do in Antarctica including water sports, wildlife excursions and mountain climbing, but there are also activities that help ongoing scientific research. This typically comes in the form of citizen science projects, but can also be helping with logistics, such as helping deliver equipment and supplies to researchers. There are a number of these projects available such as HappyWhale where tourists can upload images of whales they have spotted and their location to aid understanding about species distribution and numbers [8,9].

How Antarctica’s Tourism may not be Sustainable

Despite the sustainable procedures in place, tourism in Antarctica does have some environmental implications. Tourism in Antarctica typically occurs during the summer months (November to March) as it is when the sea ice surrounding the continent is at its minimum, allowing cruise ships to pass through with ease. However, this is when Antarctica is most sensitive with surface melt and ice shelf thinning at its highest, and ice accumulation at its lowest [10].

Threat to Antarctica’s Wildlife

The primary threat of humans visiting the most secluded continent on Earth is the introduction of alien species to its ecosystems. Seeds, bacteria and spores can enter Antarctica from items of clothing and equipment which can lead to the spread of invasive plant species and pathogens [11]. It is estimated that tourists can bring up to 9.5 seeds per person to Antarctica [14]. However, many tour operator staff are required to deep clean passengers belongings before they can step onto Antarctica.

Sinking ship MS Explorer on the 27th November 2007 threatened Antarctica's Tourism industry
Sinking MS Explorer. Wiki Commons

In addition to this, vessels visiting Antarctica’s waters can sink and release harmful toxins and fuels to the ocean, putting Antarctica’s ecosystems at risk. An example of this is the sinking of the MS Explorer within the Drake Passage on the 23rd November 2007 after colliding with an iceberg. Whilst all crew and passengers were saved, the environmental impacts of this can still be seen today. As the vessel sank, it released petroleum, oil and lubricants to be released into the ecosystem [15-17], causing devastation to its wildlife.

About the Authors

Laura is a PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London interested in decadal climate variability and policy. She has been working as a website assistant for the team for a year leading the ESRI StoryMap Collections and has written a series of introductory articles for the website.

Benjamin is a recent geography graduate from Royal Holloway University of London. He will be starting his postgraduate degree in ‘Holocene Climates’ at the University of Cambridge. Benjamin’s interests lie in understanding the environmental response and interactions between physical and human systems.


[1] Verbitsky, J. (2018) ‘Ecosystem services and Antarctica: the time has come?’, Ecosystem Services, 29(B), pp. 381-394.

[2] Verbitsky, J. (2013) ‘Antarctic tourism management and regulation: The need for change’, Polar Record, 49(3), pp. 278-285.

[3] Bender, N. A., Crosbie, K. and Lynch, H. J. (2016) ‘Patterns of tourism in the Antarctic Peninsula region: A 20-year analysis’, Antarctic Science, 28(3), pp. 194–203.

[4] Bastmeijer, Kees, Lamers, M. and Harcha, J. (2008) ‘Permanent land-based facilities for tourism in Antarctica: The need for regulation’, RECIEL, 17(1), pp. 84-99.

[5] Weber, M. (2012) ‘Cooperation of the Antarctic Treaty System with the International Maritime Organization and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators’, The Polar Journal, 2(2), pp. 372-390.

[6] O’Neill, T. A. (2017) ‘Protection of Antarctic soil environments: A review of the current issues and future challenges for the Environmental Protocol’, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 76, pp. 153-164.

[7] Stonehouse, B. (1992) ‘IAATO: An association of Antarctic tour operators’, Polar Record, 28(167), pp. 322-324.

[8] Pfeiffer, S. and Peter, H.-U. (2004) ‘Ecological studies toward the management of an Antarctic tourist landing site (Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands)’, Polar Record, 40(4), pp. 345-353.

[9] Abdullah, N. C. and Shah, R. M. (2018) ‘Guidelines for Antarctic tourism: An evaluation’, Environment Behaviour Proceedings Journal, 3(7), pp. 1-6.

[10] Pfeiffer, S. and Peter, H-U. (2004) ‘Ecological studies towards the management of an Antarctic tourist landing site (Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands)’. Polar Record. 40(4). PP. 345-353

[11] Curry, C. H., McCarthy, J. S., Darragh, H. M., Wake, R. A., Todhunter, R. and Terris, J. (2002) ‘Could tourist boots act as vectors for disease transmission in Antarctica?’, Journal of Travel Medicine, 9(4), pp. 190–193.

[12] Chown, S. L., Huiskes, A. H. L., Gremmen, N. J. M., Lee, J. E., Terauds, A., Crosbie, K., Frenot, Y., Hughes, K. A., Imura, S., Kiefer, K., Lebouvier, M., Raymond, B., Tsujimoto, M., Ware, C., Van de Vijver, V. and Bergstrom, D. M. (2012) ‘Continent-wide risk assessment for the establishment of nonindigenous species in Antarctica’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(13), pp. 4938-4943.

[13] Kessely, B. (2007) Report of investigation in the matter of sinking of passenger vessel EXPLORER (O.N. 8495) 23 November 2007 in the Bransfield Strait near the South Shetland Islands [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23 August 2021).

[14] Brosnan, I. G. (2011) ‘The diminishing age gap between polar cruisers and their ships: A new reason to codify the IMO Guidelines for ships operating in polar waters and make them mandatory?’, Marine Policy, 35(2), pp. 261-265.

[15] Ruoppolo, V., Woehler, E. J., Morgan, K. and Clumpner, C. J. (2013) ‘Wildlife and oil in the Antarctic: A recipe for cold disaster’, Polar Record, 49(2), pp. 97-109.


I am Laura Boyall, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway University of London. My PhD research focuses on reconstructing past climate using different statistical methods and computer models to help us understand more about the predictability of the climate system.

5 thoughts on “Tourism in Antarctica”

  1. Wow, what an incredible adventure! I recently read about your trip to Antarctica and was amazed by the unique and breathtaking landscapes. The vast glaciers and diverse wildlife are truly a sight to behold. The thought of exploring such an isolated and remote destination is truly inspiring. Your blog post highlights the importance of responsible tourism in preserving this fragile ecosystem. I couldn’t agree more with your message to minimize human impact and maintain the pristine beauty of Antarctica for generations to come. Thank you for sharing your unforgettable experience and raising awareness about sustainable travel. I can’t wait to plan my own trip to this stunning destination.

  2. Tourists can engage in a wide range of activities in Antarctica, such as mountain climbing, animal trips, and water sports, but there are also activities that support ongoing scientific study.

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