It may be one of the last frontiers of travel but tourism to Antarctica has grown significantly over the past twenty years.
The nationalities visiting the frozen continent have also been changing, with Chinese tourists now making up one in every eleven arrivals. Visitors from the United States were responsible for one third of all visits, with the UK, Germany, and Australia making up the rest of the Top Five (along with China). The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators said there were “opportunities and challenges” from having the vast majority of passengers land in so few locations.
However, almost all of the 170,000 visits that took place last year were in a tiny area of the continent, one sixth the size of Heathrow Airport … in a landmass that is twice the size of Australia. A new study has found that visitor numbers to the southern polar region had been growing dramatically since the 1980s before a small drop-off began in 2008 and 2009. Back in the season of 1989 and 1990, not a single site in the Antarctic welcomed more than 2,000 visitors but by the end of the 2013 season – 24 different locations were attracting that many in a year.
Even still, the area of the continent actually getting visitors is absolutely tiny. The report published in Antarctic Science explained: “If the total area visited by tourists … at the two dozen most popular landing sites in 2012/2013 is summed, 76.6% of all landings occur on circa 200 hectares of land, which equates to less than one-sixth of the area of London’s Heathrow Airport.” The study said that area was less than 0.1% “of all the snow and ice-free terrain in the Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands and South Orkney Islands”.
Dr Kim Crosbie explained: “While this focus on a few sites can create some challenges in terms of maintaining wilderness standards, it provides good opportunities for site-specific visitor management practice.” The organisation said tourism levels had so far had little “discernible impact” on these most visited areas of the Antarctic, a continent that remains the planet’s most unspoilt landscape.