Holidays in Antarctica are growing in popularity but concerns have been raised surrounding the environmental impact of Antarctic tourism.

How cool does a holiday in Antarctica sound? The last continent almost completely untouched by humans. One of the last great wildernesses. Sights and animals seen in reality by only a relative handful of humans. It would make it worth the hefty price tag of $48,000 USD ($68,000 AUD), would it not?  

Right now, there are still very few people going to Antarctica because of how difficult, and thus, expensive, to get there is. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), 74,401 visitors travelled to Antarctica in the 2019-2020 season. That’s not too bad but it was up from 56,168 the previous year. This is what has experts worried.

Tourism in the Antarctic region is controlled through guidelines outlined in the Antarctic Treaty system. For operators wishing to work in the Antarctic, the guidelines will include things like the need to conduct environmental impact assessments and requiring an IAATO observer onboard. But this might not be enough as the whole idea of holidays in Antarctica might not be sustainable in principle.

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, senior lecturer in tourism management at the University of South Australia, told the ABC,

“When you look at people’s ecological footprint to get to Antarctica, it’s already unsustainable. I know that some people will say the environmental education that the visitors get will outweigh their damage, because they become advocates for protection, but I think that’s a pretty dodgy argument.”

What environmentalists are worried about is that if there are too many people arriving, that will mean bigger ships and a higher frequency of ships, which means higher chances of pollution (like oil spills from cruise ships which happened in 2007). There are also worries surrounding the cumulative effect of human activity on the Antarctic environment.

Is Exclusivity A Saving Grace?

While that may be true, White Desert Tours’ chief marketing officer, Mindy Roberts, claimed that there this isn’t quite the same as the mass tourism you find on a P&O cruise, but ultra-luxury bespoke experiences.

As Roberts told the ABC,

“The majority of people that come to us are influencers, they’re powerful, they’re captains of industry, they’re royalty, they’re celebrities – people that do have an ability to influence change.”

She believes that keeping Antarctica exclusive will keep things in check, “Antarctic tourism can be done in a sensitive and sensible way… but it’s keeping it small.”

Roberts adds that the ridiculous high cost of Antarctic expeditions means that economically it will never be widely available to the masses. “For us, it costs about $38 USD ($53 AUD) for a can of Coke once it arrives in Antarctica. So the cost of our trips is high…Operations in Antarctica are not easy, and so I don’t think you’re ever going to have even tens of tourism operators that do what we do.”

The Irony of 'Last-Chance' Tourism

Whatever the case, it seems that there is plenty of confidence in continued interest of holidays in Antarctica.

Tourism researcher at the University of Canterbury, Daniela Liggett, says that tourism in Antarctica isn’t going anywhere soon, “I think it will pick up again after the pandemic, there is still an interest in visiting Antarctica as one of the ‘last continents’ that is still reasonably untouched by human presence.”

Liggett added that this isn’t really a good thing,

“’Last-chance’ tourism is going to be the phenomenon that’s driving the demand for it [Antarctic tourism]. But by engaging in last-chance tourism, we’re actually causing the very thing that’s the problem.”

What do you think? A playground for the rich that does more good than bad? Or another exploitative business practice that will only cause more harm?

In case you were interested in what these holidays actually look like, there’s heli-skiing!