Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment - Tourism

Antarctica doesn't have any "residents" everyone who goes is a visitor for a short time. There are two groups of visitors who can have an impact on Antarctica, tourists and those who go as part of a national Antarctic programme.

  The Impact of Visitors - Numbers

In terms of numbers, tourists greatly outnumber national programme personnel 46,069 as against 5,000 in the peak season so far in 2007/2008 and mid 30,000's in the years since. This led to a call for tourist numbers to be limited as that figure was up 14% on the previous year.

Very large ships (500 passengers +) do not now go to Antarctica. These used to account for large numbers of the counted tourists as they carried so many passengers. They tended not to make any landings and only made a fleeting visit of 2 or 3 days out of a longer wider ranging cruise. These large ships were a great concern as an incident involving an oil or fuel spill from them would have been very significant. Any kind of rescue or evacuation would also have been very difficult owing to the large numbers of people on board.

The most recent figures for the 2013-14 season show that there were 37,405 visitors. The national programme personnel clock up far more man-days however, and impacts are difficult to compare directly.

Note - The Antarctic tourist season is in the austral (southern hemisphere) summer from November to March, and spans part of two calendar years, so seasons are referred to as 2012-2013 meaning from November 2012 to March 2013 for instance.

Year 02-'03 03-'04 04-'05 05-'06 06-'07 07-'08 08-'09 09-10 10-11 11-12 12-13 13-14
Landed 13,571 19,771 22,926 25,191 29,576 33,054 27,206 21,622 19,445 22,122 25,284 27,735
All 17,543 27,537 27,950 29,823 37,552 46,069 37,858 36,875 33,824 26,509 34,354 37,405

    Tourist numbers in Antarctica since 2002, "Landed" means those who set foot on the continent or an island in Antarctica whether they arrived by ship or air, such tourists typically spend 6-30 days in Antarctica. "All" is all tourists who went to Antarctica whether or not they set foot ashore. The gap between the two lines represents those people who went but didn't land, this group typically cruise for just 3-4 days in Antarctic waters as part of a longer cruise trip and also includes those who overfly in a sight-seeing flight that takes a matter of hours.
    To put this into some kind of perspective, in 2013, the following countries received the following number of tourist visitors: Australia -  6,382,000 / France - 84,726,000 / UK - 31,169,000 / USA - 69,768,000 / Chad - 100,000

While tourists may only only spend a relatively small time on landings, usually just a few hours, it is by its nature relatively "high-impact" time - compared to a scientist or support worker who spend most of their time on a permanently or semi-permanently occupied base. Tourists also by their nature will want to visit the most picturesque and wildlife rich areas of Antarctica. Such areas that are easily accessible by the kind of small boats that take tourists from their ship to shore are relatively rare in Antarctica, so despite its enormous size, tourists become concentrated in a few areas where most landings take place A tour ship carries far more people than the entire compliment of many Antarctic bases.

One aspect of Antarctic tourism that restricts visitor numbers is the limited tourist season, this limitation is placed by the weather and in particular by the movements of sea ice. The limited tourist season does however coincide with the breeding season for most Antarctic wildlife with the potential for disturbance.

Those national programmes that are supplied by ship (as the majority are) have relatively few visits of those ships. In the season, the great majority of all shipping activity in Antarctica is of tour ships. There have been accidents with ships being grounded on uncharted rocks and there have been oil-spills. With the best safe-guards in the world (and it has to be said that marine regulations for Antarctic ships, both statuary and self-imposed are as good as they get) the more ships there are, the more accidents there will be.

Tourism in Antarctica is at present self-regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) founded in 1991 and currently with 122 members. This is an organization that applies strict guidelines to its member tour operators and ships. Such guidelines limit the size of the ships that can cruise Antarctic waters and also how many people can be landed at sites around Antarctica. So far IAATO is perceived as being successful in its aims and in regulation for Antarctic protection - though there are always those who would have no tourism at all.

Another threat comes from smaller expeditions that are becoming increasingly common by individuals and small parties. Antarctica requires careful planning and a series of fail-safe rescue procedures if anyone gets into difficulty. These smaller expeditions sometimes fail to do this adequately and resort to "humanitarian" requests for aid from shipping or nearby national bases when they get into difficulty. In recent years for example a small helicopter (totally unsuitable for the task) crashed into the sea off the Antarctic Peninsula requiring rescue. An attempt to fly across Antarctica via the pole in a small aircraft ended by the aircraft crashing and the pilot being rescued by nearby base personnel.

There is no guarantee that derelict or crashed vehicles left by private expeditioners will be removed from Antarctica as they should be.

  The Negative Impacts of Visitors

  • Invasive species - accidentally bringing in insects or seeds on boots, clothes, in food, cargo etc.

  • Impact on breeding birds - being made anxious by an influx of people that may cause them to abandon their nest or vacate an area all together if regularly disturbed. There are many records of birds that previously nested around Antarctic bases no longer doing so due to the constant activity around such places. The general voluntary code is that visitors should not go closer than 5m to any wildlife.

  • Erosion or disturbance of fragile environments - many feet walking over the same piece of ground and routes will leave paths and other scars.

  • Oil spills from ships and boats - there may be a spill due to hitting ice and rupturing a holding tank, or if the vessel sinks, all the polluting fluids will eventually escape.

  The Positive Effects of Visitors

  • Tourists become ambassadors for Antarctica - A personal note this, how or why should anyone care about a place that hardly anyone knows of or visits? The more voices there are speaking on behalf of Antarctica if development or extraction of mineral resources is considered, the better. Remember this is a place where no-one lives permanently, so there are no native residents to speak up for it.
  • As travel to Antarctica is expensive, tourists tend to be more affluent and consequently more educated and influential than the average tourist profile. They are more likely to be receptive to the message of conservation, a message which is reinforced by the educational atmosphere on board the ships where the majority of tourism in Antarctica is based.

  Larger ships

In 2009 the IMO (International Maritime Organization) approved an amendment to MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships - MARPOL being short for Marine Pollution) banning the use and carriage of heavy and intermediate fuel oils for all shipping in the Antarctic Treaty Area.

This ban mainly affected large cruise ships that operated "cruise-only" tourism without landings, these ships carry 500+ passengers. As a result of this overall tourism numbers fell from the peak of 47,225 in 2006-2007, with the difference due largely to the large passenger ships leaving the Antarctic market.

These larger ships posed the biggest potential threat to Antarctica from fuel leaks as they carry so much and from potential sinking, as they no longer sail to Antarctica the risk is reduced greatly especially as they are not ice-strengthened and so are much more vulnerable to damage.


There have so far been no major pollution incidents or losses of life in Antarctica as a result of tourism, though there was a very close call in November 2007 with the holing and subsequent sinking by an iceberg of the M/V Explorer in the Bransfield Strait

Fortunately for the passengers and crew of the Explorer the collision occurred in calm conditions, so everyone was able to get off the ship safely and into lifeboats. It was especially fortunate as having done so, they found that some of the boats were inadequate in that they were open and not even large enough for all on board to sit down and 3 out of 4 of the powered boats engines didn't work. Had it been in the dark and with a rough sea, the story may have been very different.

The passengers and crew spent about 4 hours drifting in the lifeboats before being rescued by other cruise ships in the area, about 15 hours after this the ship sank in around 1,500m (4,920 feet) of water. This despite the ship having an experienced captain and crew and having a double-reinforced hull to withstand submerged ice.

The ship sank carrying approximately 178m3 of diesel, 24m3 of lube oil and 1,200 L of gasoline. A surface oil slick 1.5km long and covering 2.5km2 was reported by the Chilean Navy a few days afterwards which grew to about 5km2  though this represents only a few cubic meters of oil. Further slicks were seen in the days following implying there was a slow leak from one or more tanks.

While the lower temperatures in the Antarctic mean that spills may persist longer than in warmer climates, it seems that the generally rougher seas help to disperse spills more quickly. The Explorer was well away from the nearest land, so the slick was dispersed before it came ashore.

The factors of a relatively small ship, calm weather and sinking in deep water well away from land meant that this shipwreck was no-where near as damaging as it might have been for the people involved and also for the environment - these factors however were as much to do with luck as was the ship hitting a piece of ice that holed her in the first place.

News summary | Full investigation report - 97 pages, 5.8Mb

  How many people go to Antarctica as tourists and where do they come from?

Antarctica Tourist Numbers 2012 - 2013
Seaborne, Airborne, Landed and Cruise

Country of Origin Numbers Percentage
United States 6,908 27.3
Germany 3,398  13.4 
Australia 3,280 13.0 
China  2,188  8.7 
United Kingdom 1,923 7.6 
Canada 984 3.9
France 918 3.6 
Switzerland 845 3.3 
Others 4,840  19.1 
Totals 25,284 100.0


What do tourists do once they are in Antarctica?

Antarctica Tourist Activities 2012 - 2013

Activity Numbers Percentage
Small Boat Landing 189,386 37.5
Ship Cruise 168,518  33.4
Small Boat Cruising 88,030  17.4
Extended Walk 15,610  3.1 
Station Visit 13,250  2.6 
Kayaking 13,113  2.6 
Aircraft Landing 2,805  0.6
Camping 2,565  0.5
Ice Landing 2,400  0.5
Anchoring Only 1,930  0.1
Ice Walk 1,842 0.4
Other 1,444 0.3
Scuba Diving 1,183  0.2 
Helicopter landing 668  0.1
Climbing 640  0.1
Skiing 611  0.1
Helicopter Flight 291  0.1
Remote Underwater Vehicle 125  0.4
Science Support 113  0.1
Aircraft Flight 106  0.1
Totals 505,269 100

Guardian newspaper article. Explorers or boys messing about? Either way, taxpayer gets rescue bill  January 28 2003.  Their last expedition ended in farce when the Russians threatened to send in military planes to intercept them as they tried to cross into Siberia via the icebound Bering Strait

More on visiting Antarctica

Picture credits, copyright pictures used by permission: Tourist photographs - Expedition Trips / Tourist data -