The idea of visiting Antarctica as a tourist destination in the way you might Yellow Stone National Park or Cairo would have been almost unthinkable twenty years ago. The White Continent is surrounded by huge ice shelves and freezing waters, making it one of the most isolated and dangerous places on earth.
Getting there isn’t easy. The feeling that tremendous 12-metre waves and 90-kilometre per hour winds will engulf boats attempting to cross the feared Drake Passage is palpable.
But nowadays, a tourist with a dispensable US$10,000 can board a small plane or a comfortable cruise liner heading for King George island (also known as Isla 25 de Mayo or Waterloo island) and embark on a unique journey that until now has been reserved for scientists.
The trips, that last between ten and fifteen days, tour the peninsula allowing tourists to explore on foot or observe the unique landscape from a distance, said Alan Fox, president of Antarctica Cruise. Unlike ships adapted for scientific investigation, tourist boats are luxurious and have comfortable cabins, elegant meeting rooms, restaurants serving sumptuous food – even gyms and spas.
Chinese tourists haven’t been left behind.
It’s normal to find fish soup for breakfast
Since 2008, most visitors have come from the US, followed by Europeans and Australians. In 2010, Chinese appeared on the list of top visitors for the first time, featruing in seventh place. They accounted for just three percent of total visitors. In recent years, however, China has jumped to second place overall accounting for 12% and 15.8% in 2016 to 2018, respectively, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
“Today, in the on-board library, 30 or 40% of books available are in mandarin,” said Angela Posada-Swafford, a Colombian journalist and scientific guide from Quark Expeditions.
“Over the last three years, the buffets have had to adapt to Chinese tastes. It’s normal to find fish soup for breakfast,” said Posada-Stafford.
According to the Hurun Report, which complies the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes millionaire list, in 2017, the Polar Regions were the seventh most popular destination for the wealthiest Chinese.
As the Chinese economy grows, a considerable number of citizens have increased their purchasing power. Travelling has become a popular hobby, especially for young and middle-aged executives.
They go wearing silk clothing and tuxedos underneath their thermal clothes, which they remove when they get to their chosen venue
For the so-called super rich, extravagant holiday choices qualify as ‘luxury goods’, according to the Hurun Research institute.
“Many young people are taking part in these expensive trips, which end up being a question of status,” said Posada-Stafford.
More and more young Chinese young go to Antarctica to get married and take wedding photos.
“They go wearing silk clothing and tuxedos underneath their thermal clothes, which they remove when they get to their chosen venue. After the ceremony, they take out a sign in Chinese for the photograph that declares that they were married in Antarctica,” Posada-Stafford said.
Despite being a potentially dangerous destination, there is an element of prestige about Antarctica that is synonymous with exclusivity and adventure.
The European company Hertigruten offers regular trips to the peninsular with the promise of exposure to “probably the most pristine natural place on earth”.
Tourism and its impact
In the last 26 years, Antarctic tourism has increased 770%. During the Southern hemisphere’s last summer, the number of tourists visiting the continent grew 17% to a total of 51,000 people, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).
The environmental impacts of this phenomenon on fragile ecosystems are a huge concern. If the number of tourists continues to increase exponentially, there will be huge conservation challenges.
The Secretariat of the Antarctic Treay, was established in Argentine capital Buenos Aires in 2004 and aims to conserve peace and the natural integrity of the region, develops contingency plans annually in the hope of allowing the industry to grow sustainably.
Before and during trips, rules of conduct are laid out to visitors. Among these are the distance that tourists should maintain from fauna, boundaries for paths for hikes and standards for cleaning clothing so as to prevent the introduction of non-native species.
There is even a free App, “IAATO Polar Guide: Antarctica” for IOS and Android, which works without internet connection and is designed to support the bio-security of fauna, among other features.
Many activities on vessels create awareness among tourists on environmental responsibility on the White Continent. Scientific guides board the ships and form part of every expedition. They educate passengers on the continent’s flora and fauna and the importance of the Treaty.
square-kilometres of Antarctic ice sheets have disappeared since 1950
However, environmental decline seems all but inevitable and has been recorded in recent years. Ice sheets surrounding the continent are beginning to retreat due to the increase in sea temperatures. Krill, an essential food source for whales, is decreasing, with consequences for the whole Antarctic food chain. According to research portal Discovering Antarctica, since 1950, 25,000 square-kilometres of ice sheets have disappeared.
Antarctica is the last place on earth where natural resources are not exploited on an industrial scale. It stores the largest amount of fresh water on earth and regulates its temperatures. World leaders meet annually to design protection strategies against human activities in this most sensitive of regions.
Tourists visiting the continent in the coming years will witness and have a growing responsibility for the environmental impacts of this fragile, frozen habitat.