Tourism: frequently asked questions

Looking out over the Larsemann Hills. Richard Priddy.

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, 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 in a jumbo jet (e.g. from Melbourne or Sydney). This form of sightseeing or ‘flightseeing’ is the quickest and cheapest option, and while it doesn’t offer the experience of setting foot on the frozen continent, it generally includes films, lectures, spectacular views and live radio contact with Antarctic stations.

How much does it cost?

Check with the companies that offer voyages. Australian-based Antarctic tourism companies.

As a guide a berth on a typical tour ship capable of carrying 50-200 passengers to the Antarctic Peninsula (e.g. departing from Ushuaia, in southern Argentina) costs between AUD$5,600 and $20,000 per person. The price depends on the length of the tour (2 to 3 weeks) and the quality of accommodation.

Tourist vessels making the longer journey to East Antarctica (e.g. departing from Hobart to the Ross Sea or Australia's Antarctic Territory) charged between AUD$11,500 and $35,000 per person, again depending on the length of time at sea and the quality of the cabin.

It's also possible to charter yachts. The fee varies according to the sort of charter: some operators invite the customers to design their own itinerary, and offer a crewed yacht (e.g. three crew, with room for perhaps eight passengers) for roughly AUD$3,000 per day; others offer a set itinerary over a month or longer, for approximately AUD$12,000 per person.

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

Is Antarctic tourism safe?

As with most nature-based and adventure travel, tour operators need to be prepared to handle unexpected events and extreme conditions. Provided they are properly organised, tourist visits to Antarctica are generally regarded as safe.

There have been three major exceptions to the safe record of Antarctic tourism. In November 1979, an Air New Zealand sightseeing aeroplane tragically crashed into Mount Erebus (East Antarctica), killing everyone on board. In January 1989, the ship Bahia Paraiso sank in Arthur Harbour (Antarctic Peninsula). All passengers survived, but the sinking ship leaked several hundred thousand litres of fuel, which required a major clean-up operation.

In November 2007 the tourist ship M/V Explorer sank in the Bransfield Strait between the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. All 154 people aboard were evacuated into lifeboats and eventually safely rescued. The vessel sank in deep water distant from land, and while some fuel spilled from the vessel, and may continue to do so, it has so far dispersed without significant environmental impact being detected.

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. You can see some of these figures in our State of the Environment Report.

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, including:

1966: Tourists hoping to visit national research stations should give advance notice (Recommendation IV-27).

1970: Tourists should avoid disturbing scientific activities, and not enter specially protected areas (Recommendation VI-7).

1994: "Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic" – a set of principles to protect the environment and ensure safety (Recommendation XVIII-1).

1997: All tour operators should use standardised advance notification and post-visit forms (Resolution XXI-3).

2004: Tourism and non-governmental activities must be insured and plan for contingencies (Measure 4 of 2004).

2005: Site use guidelines (visitor limits and codes of conduct) put in place for four Antarctic Peninsula sites (Resolution 5 of 2005).

2006: Site use guidelines put in place for twelve sites in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

2007: Site use guidelines for two additional sites were adopted. Resolution 4 (2007) was adopted, under which vessels carrying more than 500 passengers should not conduct landings. This resolution also establishes that only one vessel should visit a landing site at a time, that only 100 tourists should be ashore at a time (unless a site guideline indicates that fewer are appropriate) and that there should be at least one guide accompanying every 20 tourists ashore.

2008: Site guidelines for four additional landing sites were adopted, bringing the total to 18 site guidelines (Resolution 2, 2008).

Is tourism a good or bad thing for the Antarctic wilderness?

You be the judge!

Those who take paying passengers to Antarctica often say that they are making people ambassadors for Antarctica. Their argument is that once you have seen the unique animals and landscapes up close, you understand why Antarctica is so special and should be protected.

Others are worried that, as more and more people visit Antarctica as tourists, they could damage the Antarctic environment. They argue that tourists could (accidentally or recklessly) disturb animals, spread diseases from their home countries to Antarctica, or leave behind rubbish and pollution.

The Australian Government’s policy views Antarctic tourism as a legitimate activity, provided it is done in a way that upholds the principles of the Antarctic Treaty, is ecologically sustainable and socially responsible.