Polar tourism

Overtourism in Antarctica

Tourism in the Antarctic region predates the Antarctic Treaty itself and has been a matter of discussion among Antarctic Treaty states since the early Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings beginning in 1961. Antarctic tourism growth, in particular, has resulted in significant discussion in Antarctic Treaty fora and also generated substantial academic interest. Earlier ATCM instruments on tourism addressed issues such as regulating tourist visits to stations, protecting designated areas and historic monuments, and preventing tourist landings in newly formed islands. At the time, few tourism ships travelled to the Antarctic region, and only a few hundreds of tourists visited the region each season.

Roura128In contrast, Antarctic tourism nearing the 2019-2020 season is an established, robust industry that transports tens of thousands of tourists to Antarctica each year over a season lasting approximately five months. However, the relative predictability of Antarctic tourism over the past two decades – steady overall growth managed by limited industry-led regulation – seems to be about to change. Significant growth is predicted in the next few years, which puts again the focus on tourism growth as an issue that merits consideration from the industry, decision makers, competent authorities and other stakeholders.

This document examines recent and anticipated trends on tourism growth and diversification, and in addition it explores the concept of “overtourism” as it applies to Antarctic tourism. What are the likely trends in Antarctic tourism for the next few years compared to the past two decades? What are the consequences likely to be for the practice of tourism – and is Antarctic tourism moving towards early stages of overtourism at some times and places?

Tourists landding on the sea ice - © Le Cercle Polaire

This analysis is based on active participation on Antarctic tourism discussions at the ATCM and related fora for two decades. In 2008 ASOC made an assessment of Antarctic tourism tendencies during the previous decade from the 1997-1998 season onwards. That analysis focused specifically on status and trends for Antarctic tourism; concerns with respect to tourism management and Antarctic governance generally; and actions needed from a policy perspective. This article provides both a “rearview” and forward looking perspective of Antarctic tourism at a time of change. For the status and trends of Antarctic tourism we used data and analysis provided by the IAATO in its annual overviews, with a focus on relevant points in time every ten years approximately. This analysis is informed, where relevant, with observations of polar tourist behavior, more recently during research in Svalbard (2015 and 2017) and in Antarctica (November 2017).

Status and trends on Antarctic tourism

Antarctic tourism is inherently dynamic and characterized by several interrelated factors, including growth in numbers, geographic expansion coupled with a concentration of landings at certain sites that have been de facto consolidated as tourism destinations; diversification of means of transport ; diversification of activities; and an expanding customer base.

Tourism remained at relatively low levels from the late 1950s onwards until it began to grow significantly in the 1990s and through the late 2000s. Some of the trends during this earlier period of growth included:

• Continuing increase of tourism resulting in tourist numbers doubling every few years. Other indicators – number of operators, ships, staff and crew –increased too; <brl• Establishment of what could aptly be called “mass tourism destinations” – i.e., locations that appear on most tourist itineraries, where hundreds or thousands of tourists land every season, representing a sizeable percentage of all landings that season. This results in tourism concentration in certain sites, and in certain regions. A number of other sites are also subject to tourism use albeit less frequently; 

• Increasing expansion– whilst these activities largely focused on the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula, there was some activity in the Ross Sea area, and activities in some parts of the Antarctic interior expanded as well;
• Diversification of activities and development of activity-based tourism (rather than location-based tourism, where the focus of the visits are attractions such as wildlife or historic sites), and
• Limited legally binding regulation specific to tourism adopted by the ATCM. Between 2004 and 2009, coincident with growing tourism, the ATCM adopted two mandatory Measures on tourism, as well as Annex VI to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. However, none of these instruments has yet entered into force.

Antarctic tourism peaked in the 2007-2008 season and subsequently declined. The sinking of the cruise ship MV Explorer in 2006 might have dampened public interest on visiting the Antarctica but the effect of this accident is difficult to discern. However, the global economic crisis that started in 2008 clearly impacted on demand for Antarctic travel.

Ushuaia harbour, departure to Antarctica cruises from argentina - © Le Cercle Polaire

Limits on the landing of passengers from ships carrying more than 500 passengers from 2005 encouraged the modality of cruise-only tourism – i.e. tourism cruises carried out on large capacity ships that do not conduct landings on account of logistic. Cruise-only tourism was growing in the late 2000s, and while it has continued as an activity category it decreased somewhat subsequently. A ban on the use of heavy fuel oils established by the International Maritime Organisation entered into force on 1 August 2011 and further discouraged the operations of large-capacity cruise ships (carrying up to several thousands of passengers) which largely rely on that type of fuel and are expensive to retrofit to burn lighter fuel. These factors resulted in a drop in tourist numbers from the late 2000s.

However, Antarctic tourism numbers have recovered and are now beginning to exceed the levels it had in 2007-2008 in terms of total tourist numbers when it exceeded 46,000 tourists, including both landing and non-landing tourists. Non-landing overflights have declined, whereas air-cruise and deep field tourism are on the increase.

In recent seasons, there has been an increase in the number of voyages and the number of tourist landings (i.e. “instances of passengers being carried by inflatable boats to a particular site where these passengers actually set foot ashore” Naveen and others 2001:122). Two recent seasons (2016-2017 and 2017-2018) had some 45,000 and 51,000 tourists respectively, including both landing and non-landing tourists.

Future predictions of Antarctic tourism growth are based on the number of polar ships that are currently under construction and that will be delivered in coming years, coupled by a growing interest on polar tourism in Asian markets. Between 16 and 20 new cruise vessels are currently under construction for operation in polar waters, with more potentially planned for the future. Some industry sources suggest up to 40 new “expedition” cruise vessels, most of them commissioned by companies already operating in the polar regions. Whilst some of these ships will replace existing ones, there will be a net increase in market capacity and consequently the growth trend in tourist numbers is upwards. In the 2018-2019 season there was an estimate of 55,000 tourists, including both landing and non-landing tourists. Tourist numbers are predicted to reach over 80,000 tourists in the 2018-2019 season, including both landing and non-landing tourists.

The anticipated escalation on tourist numbers is common knowledge among those following Antarctic tourism developments from within or outside the industry. However, some Antarctic tour operators question that tourism growth will be as significant as predicted. The projected increase in ship capacity is real, but some operators question whether ships under construction will be delivered in time, and speculate that the growth will spread over a longer period than predicted. Further, some operators question whether a 40% increase in passenger numbers is possible even given expanded capacity and a strong demand. In contrast, other operators are concerned about an almost unmanageable situation in parts of Antarctica given that the current operations model depends on activities taking place over a small part of the NW Antarctic Peninsula’s coastline. There, operators need to coordinate landings like clockwork to prevent having two cruise ships in one landing site, which is one of the rules of the industry to preserve the “wilderness experience” for their passengers. But this is becoming increasingly difficult and may be disrupted by sea ice and weather conditions. For instance, heavy sea ice in highly used shipping lanes could disrupt landing plans at some sites and cause congestion elsewhere.

IAATO has proposed ways to manage tourism growth based on four “pillars” which consist of redefining the Antarctic experience (largely about managing the expectations of tourists); strengthening environmental and safety standards; site scale management; and strengthening scientific cooperation (including promoting citizen science). Some of the proposed actions are relatively new initiatives, others are approaches that IAATO has been following for some time. Further IAATO has also introduced changes to its scheduler to facilitate vessel management and communications. Through the ship scheduler each vessel knows the location and planned visits of other vessels; the new scheduler will aim to streamline the movement of a larger number of vessels.

Apart from shipborne tourism, other modalities of Antarctic tourism may grow too, particularly as air links to Antarctica are expanded and enhanced. Air-cruise tourism, where passengers fly to the Antarctic to board their ship (thus avoiding long sea passages) is on the increase. Land based tourism supported by air transport (or “deep-field” tourism) has also increased in the past decade while remaining a niche activity. Some of these activities are enabled by the use of runaways and other facilities maintained by national Antarctic programs. Activities are likely to increase in the triangle delimited by Union Glacier – Queen Maud Land – South Pole. This vast area combines landing airstrips and land-based support for tourists at some locations relatively near the coast with overland access to the South Pole, which serves as a magnet for both independent and assisted expeditions. However, the dynamics of land-based tourism are different than for seaborne tourism, and the overall situation is less well known. Here, remoteness and difficult access result in high costs and tour operators target the high end of the tourism market. Absolute tourist numbers in the Antarctic interior are one or two orders of magnitude fewer than for other forms of tourism (several hundred tourists annually) and likely to remain comparatively small. However, the establishment of new runaways and air links both by operators and by national Antarctic programs, as well as overland transport in specialized wheeled vehicles, may eventually lead to more tourism to the Antarctic interior.

Diversification, technology impact and behavioural change

Antarctic tourism, as a activity, has changed considerably in the past two decades from respect to the earlier times, and is likely to continue to change in the future. Change results in part from the need by operators to diversify their products and differentiate from their competitors, and partly from the impact of new technology.

For the purposes of tourism, Antarctica is not only a destination visited for its archetypical attractions but is also a playground for a range of more or less adventurous activities, and a background for on-board activities and entertainment. During landings, polar tourists display a basic behavioural repertoire that includes walking around the sites they visit, gathering and receiving information about local sights and attractions, and making a record of their presence, either by taking something with them, e.g., photographs, or leaving something behind, e.g., a stone on a cairn. Obviously, common behaviour is complemented by a vast range of less common and even eccentric behaviour, including potentially non-compliant behaviour such as graffitiing. In addition, a broad range of additional activities available to tourists such as kayaking and overnight camping correspondingly expands the range of possible behaviour.

Gentoo penguins colonie - © Le Cercle Polaire

In recent years technological developments and associated social change globally – particularly the advent of the mobile phone, digital photography, and social media platforms of different kinds – have had a transformative effect on tourist behaviour and the tourism experience as a whole. Documentation and image-making have been turned into a dominant element of Antarctic tourist behaviour too. Images are meant not only for private use but also to share in social media. Further, the camera is often pointed at the photographer, and in that sense Antarctica has become a background for the tourists themselves as they document their lives and share them with their social media friends. It could be argued that for many tourists Antarctic sight-seeing – a basic form of tourist behaviour – has increasingly become mediated by technology, self-centred, and aimed at virtual audiences rather than introspective.

However, not all tourists choose to focus on image-making. In an analysis of three works of non-fiction literature developed during recent Antarctic tourism cruises, Leane (2019) noted that the authors selected to quietly rebel against the dominance of image-making practices and herd-like behaviour. Instead they chose to take few or no photographs at all themselves, focusing on other forms of documenting their trip such as writing. In a way, these tourist/writers rebelled against being tourists, and choose to behave in variance with respect to their fellow travellers, making them “problem-passengers” of sorts. 

Guerlach Strait is one of the most visited sites in Antarctic Péninsula - © Le Cercle Polaire

The relatively limited number of shared facilities does not necessarily mean that there is no international scientific cooperation (ATCM XXXVII Final Report, para. 304; COMNAP 2014). A 2014 survey of National Antarctic Programs (NAPs) noted that every one of the 29 members of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) had participated in or provided support for international scientific cooperation in Antarctica and in home institutions. Since the first COMNAP Survey in 1997, there had been a 30 per cent average increase in international cooperation across all the COMNAP National Antarctic Programmes. It noted that only one out of the 29 COMNAP members had responded “no” to the question: “Within the past ten years, has your National Antarctic Programme been involved in international scientific collaboration, partnerships or joint research?” This meant that 96 per cent of COMNAP members had engaged in international scientific collaboration. It also noted that only two out of 29 COMNAP members had responded “no” to the question: “Within the past ten years, has your National Antarctic Programme shared any facilities with any other national Antarctic programme?” This meant that 93 per cent had shared logistics (ATCM XXXVII Final Report, para. 304; COMNAP 2014).

The use of “drones” in Antarctica could have had a transformative effect on tourism, too, and may still have in the future. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are aircraft with no on-board crew or passengers, are now referred in Antarctica as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS). RPAS are used for a number of purposes, including aerial photography. RPAS appeared as an item for discussion at the ATCM only on 2014. It was apparent that by then RPAS use by scientists as well as tourists in Antarctica was ubiquitous and growing, and RPAS impact and regulation became a significant agenda item for discussion at the ATCM.

neko harbour02
Necko Harbour and Cuverville Island was the 1st and 2nd most visited sites in 2013-2014 season - © Alaska to Brazil blog

 On the industry side UAVs were initially tolerated but in 2015 IAATO agreed on a partial moratoria on their use by tourists from 2015-2016 season (IAATO 2015). The recreational use of RPAS in the often wildlife-rich, coastal areas of Antarctica is not allowed by IAATO members until more is known about their responsible use. IAATO has stated that it intends to review the ban annually in May to allow for potential technological advances and further developments by decision makers. IAATO further established that the recreational use of authorized RPAS in the interior of Antarctica is allowed “under strict and carefully controlled conditions”. On the government side, several years of discussion resulted on Resolution 4 (2018) on Environmental Guidelines for operation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in Antarctica. Although not mandatory, the guidelines represent the current environmental best practice for planning and undertaking RPAS activities in Antarctica and can be used to inform decisions by competent authorities.

Both the industry and Antarctic Treaty parties took relatively prompt action to prevent this technology – with potential harmful effects on wildlife and human safety, but also a potential transformation of the tourism experience – to be broadly adopted for tourism use until it was better understood. This raises the question of what will happen then.

Antarctic overtourism?

Commercial shipborne tourism along the Antarctic Peninsula grew significantly since the late 1980s. Certain conditions such as relatively short distance to a port city with an international airport, a rugged coastline with abundant wildlife and historic sites, and dramatic landscapes have enabled the particular form of shipborne tourism that exists today to develop – in essence an “expedition cruise” that fits in a two- or three-week vacation to the Antarctic Peninsula. This enables different modalities of tourism, whether it is a standard tourism cruise with or without landings, or air-cruise operations where sea passages are minimised. A study of shipborne tourism patterns in that region confirmed that:
…. passenger landings and marine traffic are highly concentrated at a few specific locations and that growth in tourism activity occurred disproportionally rapidly at these sites relative to growth in visitation of the Peninsula as a whole.

One of the early indicators of tourism growth in Antarctica was the establishment of Site Guidelines for Visitors (SGVs). These non-mandatory instruments were adopted by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting from 2005 to provide practical guidance to tour operators and visitors about how they should conduct their activities at certain sites. SGVs responded to a continuing trend in the increase of tourism activities in Antarctica; the fact that certain specific sites provided the principal focus for visitors and are, to varying degrees, visited frequently by tour operators thereby increasing the potential for visitor-related pressures at such sites. SGVs complement other “soft”, non-binding regulation to streamline tourism landings. The majority of SGVs apply to sites in the Antarctic Peninsula. In the 2007-2008 season there were 14 sites with SGVs attached to them which had been adopted by the ATCM (in turn a fraction of the sites visited at the time, but those where those guidelines were most needed). In the 2017-2018 season there were 39 of such sites. This increase reflects steady progress by the ATCM on completing SGVs for the most visited sites, but also continued pressure to produce such guidelines.


Verdnasky, the Ukrainian station - © Le Cercle Polaire

A projected significant increase of tourist numbers by 40% or more in the next few years will further add pressure to a relatively limited number of ice-free sites where landings take place. These developments raise questions about whether concept of overtourism might soon apply to Antarctica. The term overtourism, which is reported to have first appeared in social media in 2012 (with the hashtag #overtourism) is increasingly in use by mainstream media, tourism organizations, and academia. , The term is however not clearly defined or conceptualised. The (apparently) only available dictionary definition of “overtourism” (from Collins) describes it as “the phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way.” A recent study on overtourism in Europe commissioned by the European Union defines it thus:
Overtourism describes the situation in which the impact of tourism, at certain times and in certain locations, exceeds physical, ecological, social, economic, psychological, and/or political capacity thresholds.

For the purposes of applying the concept of overtourism to Antarctic tourism these two definitions above clarify some aspects of this phenomena, but remain somewhat vague because they rely on concepts which are in themselves not unambiguous (e.g. “unsustainability” or “carrying capacity”). However, they point at certain circumstances that might become apparent in Antarctica, at least at some sites and in some times. Most studies of overtourism apply to European cities and clearly some of the descriptors of overtourism would not apply in Antarctica. Nonetheless, they give a hint of how the concept of overtourism might apply to Antarctica. Also, overtourism is not a problem of cities only, but also applies to smaller or more isolated locations; nor is over tourism a synonym of mass tourism, although a rise on tourist numbers is a triggering factor to many issues associated with it.

A study commissioned by the World Travel & Tourism Council concluded that the five challenges associated with overtourism are alienation of local residents, degradation of the tourist experience, infrastructure overload, environmental damage and threats to culture and heritage. These challenges will be briefly examined as they apply to Antarctica.

Plainly Antarctica has no indigenous peoples or permanent residents, but it has some temporary residents and regular site users, whether long term or short term, whose activities might be affected by an increase on tourism. This includes base personnel, scientists doing field work or running long term research projects at certain locations, and tour operators using repeatedly some sites to land their passengers. It also includes the tourists themselves. Most Antarctic research stations regulate and limit tourism visits, but there is potential for some interference at some stations. Equally there is no tourism infrastructure to speak of, barring a small number of facilities primarily focused on receiving tourist landings (e.g. such as Historic Site and Monument 61, Port Lockroy) and some accommodation facilities. However, there is a potential for tourism overload at some sites that have no actual infrastructure – the sites subject to Site Guidelines for Visitors, in itself an indicator that a site is regularly or frequently visited. According to guidelines only 100 guided passengers can land ashore at any one time (fewer in some sites), thus preventing the build-up of larger groups. Some wildlife rich SGVs institute precautionary “rest times” in the evening – the approximate equivalent of a zoo closing time – and at those sites this prevents 24 hour visitation. However, it is conceivable that some sites will experience a frequent flow of visitor landings in the high season. Further there might be a relative congestion of ships in the vicinity of popular sites. Increased visitation would contribute to cumulative effects at some locations, whether these are evident or not for visitors, with varying degrees of significance in an environmental sense.

The predicted increase on shipborne tourism may be felt not only onshore but also in some coastal and marine areas, for instance where whales congregate encouraging whale watching activities. In recent years, whale researchers have observed an increase in both the number and size of expedition vessels touring the Antarctic Peninsula. Reportedly some vessels have been observed transiting through aggregations of feeding whales at high speeds. Whale researchers have also noticed a change in the behaviour of whales; reportedly individual whales that used to be approachable to researchers have become very evasive. This is interpreted to be likely a result of high levels of close approaches and follows by both ships and Zodiacs. IAATO has recently agreed on some whale strike prevention measures. These are to either reduce speed limits to 10 knots (18. 5 km/h) while cruising in certain areas or, for member operators who have a whale strike mitigation training program, an extra person on watch on the bridge to monitor and record sightings within the area. These measures are welcome as they would reduce whale strikes by ships. However, other issues associated with increased ship traffic will remain.

For the time being, overtourism might become apparent in some occasions at some specific sites in the Antarctic Peninsula that are frequently visited, and in certain shipping routes – such as frequent instances of cruise ships encountering each other, frequent successive landings at particular sites, large number of tourists participating in “extra” activities such as extended walks, and evidence of earlier landings. Elsewhere in Antarctica, the risk of overtourism will be limited or nil, but there will still be growing tourism pressure at some relatively accessible areas. These include the Ross Sea region, accessible from New Zealand ports, and parts of Queen Maud Land, accessible by plane from Cape Town. Even the South Pole, one of the most remote places on earth, is visited regularly by both independent expeditions and tourists in organised adventure trips. The increase of visitation in recent years has required action from authorities from the United States that operate the Amundsen-Scott Base located precisely at the South Pole to allow visitors to the geographical South Pole nearby the station but to prevent interference with station activities.

Union Glacier5

Union Glacier is the unique private summer camp in Antarctica - © Le Cercle Polaire

Koens et al (2018) suggest that overtourism is not well conceptualised and merits further research. They note that the debate about over tourism draws attention to the effects of unlimited tourism growth, and points to the limitations of voluntary, market-led regulation. More regulatory oversight by Antarctic Treaty Parties may be required and beneficial, as there is a limit as to how much tourism can grow while remaining sustainable. This suggests that revisiting the concept of carrying capacity – or capacities – for Antarctica (and hence further clarifying a concept of overtourism for Antarctica) would be a positive development. This was, indeed, one of the conclusions of the workshop on Antarctic tourism conducted by Antarctic Treaty states in May 2019.


Union Glacier can only be accessed by air - © Le Cercle Polaire

What are the likely trends in Antarctic tourism for the next few years compared to the past two decades?

As a whole, from the late 1990s Antarctic tourism has experienced both change and continuity, with an overall trend towards continued growth, expansion and diversification that has been moderated – or at least concealed – by seasonal, annual and decadal fluctuations. Whatever the trends in the past two decades, as identified in the documents from 2008 and 2018 used here as a benchmark, there is a general understanding that polar tourism is expected to grow significantly in coming years, partly driven by demand (including from newer Asian markets) and partly by an increase of capacity. An increase on tourist numbers in the last three seasons serve as an early indicator of growth, reaching and surpassing the previous peak in the late 2000s after an economic slump from 2008.

However, estimates for 2019-2020 suggest a significant jump on tourism numbers. Antarctic tourism seems to be entering an entirely new phase, and this is likely to influence how current Antarctic tourism regulation works. If the growth is as large as projected then it will necessarily require an adjustment of how Antarctic tourism is conducted in parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, partly through industry initiatives, but also with support, oversight and regulation by Antarctic Treaty states. Actions needed include ratifying mandatory instruments that have already been adopted but are not in force yet, and adopting additional measures aimed to minimize environmental risk, cumulative environmental impacts, and keep under control the expansion of tourism towards new Antarctic frontiers.

What are the consequence likely to be for the practice of tourism – and is Antarctic tourism moving towards early stages of overtourism at some times and places?

Antarctic tourism growth responds to the same processes that led to tourism growth worldwide and to a range of problems at some popular destinations characterised as overtourism. In parallel, technological and behavioural change is already changing the tourism experience from within, arguably distancing people from their surroundings. The future of tourism looks increasingly like more and more people will want to travel to Antarctica mostly to take selfies and other images for sharing on social media. In this context, it is worth asking whether Antarctic overtourism might not be a real possibility in some places and at some times.

Antarctica as a whole will not likely be overrun by tourists, but some areas or locations might experience at times a form of overtourism (in as far as the concept can be applied to Antarctic conditions) such as it might be e.g. frequent encounters with other tourist groups or cruise ships, cumulative effects at landing sites, and a degraded wilderness experience by visitors. Further, new “tourism frontiers” may develop elsewhere in Antarctica. Future developments are likely to be related to air operations, whether air-cruise tourism or air transport to land based facilities.

The concept of overtourism serves at a minimum to remind the Antarctic tourism industry, decision makers and other Antarctic stakeholders that rapid tourism growth requires timely action to prevent unwanted effects on the environment and other values recognised in Antarctic Treaty instruments, and even on the tourism experience itself. In this content, the initiatives announced by IAATO to manage tourism growth are welcome. The implementation and effectiveness of these initiatives should be monitored by IAATO members and also by external observers to ensure that they work in the longer term. Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties should endeavour to be proactive too, and ensure that the various mandatory instruments they adopted in the past enter into force, and take other initiatives – such as the establishment of ASPAs - to ensure that tourism growth does not impact on the intrinsic value of Antarctic. Antarctic Treaty states have tended to be reactive with respect to regulating tourism, but rapidly changing circumstances may spur them to action.


I thank the following people for useful discussions on various aspects of Antarctic tourism in recent years, without implicating them in my analysis: Kees Bastmeijer, Julian Chen, Claire Christian, Holly Fearnbach, Eelco Leemans, Denise Landau, Juan Lucci, Erik Molenaar, Peter Prokosh and Rodolfo Werner. I also thank Jing Meng, Lindsay Tamm, Gillian Williams, Songqiao Yao and Fan Zhao for interesting and enjoyable Antarctic fieldwork in 2017.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ASOC or its member organisations, or any organisation the author has cooperated with.



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