Tourism: frequently asked questions

Looking out over the Larsemann Hills. Richard Priddy.

The Australian Government views Antarctic tourism as a legitimate activity, provided it is conducted safely in an environmentally responsible manner.

What time of year do tourists visit Antarctica?

The best conditions for visiting the Antarctic Peninsula occur between mid-November and early March. East Antarctica is less accessible: visits take place in late December–March. Summer means milder temperatures, less ice and more visible wildlife.

How do tourists get to Antarctica?

Most visitors reach Antarctica by ship. These voyages last from 10 days to several weeks, and ships range from the basic to the luxurious. Most (except the largest cruise ships, of 500 or more passengers) offer the chance to go ashore.

The vast majority of ships visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which is one and a half to two days’ sailing across the Drake Passage from South America. Voyages to East Antarctica are less common, and typically spend 10 days crossing the Southern Ocean en route to the continent, including visits to subantarctic islands, after departing from Hobart (Australia) or New Zealand's South Island.

Each year, some tourists fly to Antarctica. Several hundred board aircraft in South America or South Africa, and then set off from a base camp to go mountain climbing or skiing, or join a cruise from the ice edge.

It's also possible to do a 12-hour round trip over Antarctica by air (e.g. from Melbourne or Sydney). This form of sightseeing is the quickest and cheapest option for seeing Antarctica, and while it doesn’t offer the experience of setting foot on the frozen continent, it generally includes films, lectures, and spectacular views.

Are there any tourists on Australian Antarctic research vessels?

No. The Australian Antarctic program’s vessels and aeroplanes only carry people to do science and support Australian research stations, and to undertake other official duties.

In Antarctica, expeditioners occasionally use free time for recreational visits to points of tourist interest, such as wildlife colonies and rock formations. When they do, they are subject to guidelines at least as strict as those for tourists.

Can tourists visit Macquarie Island?

Yes, if they have a permit. Macquarie Island (a World Heritage listed subantarctic island 1,500 kilometres south east of Tasmania, of which it forms a part, and 1,300 kilometres north of the Antarctic continent) figures on two types of itineraries:

(1) It's a mid-way point in voyages which depart from Hobart or the South Island of New Zealand, heading for East Antarctica. These are often destined for the Ross Sea, and sometimes include visits to Commonwealth Bay and other features in Australian Antarctic Territory. Macquarie Island is included as a one or two day stopover, as part of a voyage of three weeks or more.

(2) Macquarie Island and nearby New Zealand subantarctic islands (e.g. Campbell Island, Auckland Islands) are destinations in their own right for shorter (e.g. two-week) subantarctic voyages. These depart from Hobart or New Zealand's South Island, and typically focus on bird watching.

Macquarie Island is part of the Australian State of Tasmania, which requires visitors to apply for a permit to visit the island. You can find more information about the island from the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service, which sets limits on the number of visitors per season and the number of visitors ashore at any one time.

Can tourists visit Heard Island?

Yes, if they have a permit. Heard Island and McDonald Islands (an island group 4,000 kilometres south west of mainland Australia and on the World Heritage list) is so remote that it is only occasionally visited by tour ships. Since the islands lie within the most biologically pristine area in the world and provide crucial breeding habitat for a range of birds and marine mammals, tourists require permits, and must remain within specified visitor zones.

More information on Heard Island

Does the government monitor tourist numbers?

Yes. Countries that are party to the Antarctic Treaty collect tourism statistics through their environmental authorisations processes.

All Australian-based tour operators visiting Antarctica, and all operators visiting Australian Antarctic Territory, are subject to environmental impact assessments. The Australian Antarctic Division makes it a condition that they give a full report of their activities on their return.

From these reports, together with statistics compiled by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators we develop a picture of the overall potential "pressure" tourist visits place on Antarctica.

Is tourism discussed when Antarctic Treaty governments meet?

Yes. "Tourism and non-governmental activities" has been on the agenda of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings since 1966.

The management plans for Antarctic protected areas and other decisions under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty apply to both tourists and official government expeditions. Treaty Parties have also made joint decisions and recommendations relating directly to tourism.