The passengers have journeyed a long way to get here, including a likely tumultuous 36-hour trip through the 500-mile-wide Drake Passage, regarded as one of the world’s roughest bodies of water. Some board Zodiac rafts for the short ride to shore, where, from a distance, they will observe and photograph nesting penguins. Others will set off in kayaks; if they’re lucky, a curious fin whale or orca might pop up to check them out. Still others will snorkel, dive, snowshoe, or even take a submarine or helicopter ride. They will have the landing spot to themselves for a few hours, and thanks to a scheduling and communication system among all vessels in the area, they probably won’t see another ship — though the penguins will see a stream of parka-clad intruders all day long.

These travelers are among an elite group who have journeyed to Antarctica, one of the most remote, pristine and inhospitable places on earth. Some come for the intimate wildlife encounters. Some come to see calving glaciers and climate change in action. Some come just to say they have been here. For the expedition teams who guide guests through this fragile, fast-melting ecosystem, the hope is that passengers will go home committed to serving as ambassadors for Antarctica, messengers for the need to arrest climate change and save not just Antarctica, but the rest of the world’s wild places.

Tourism in Antarctica is booming — more than 50,000 expedition cruise tourists visited the continent in the 2019-2020 season, which was cut short because of the pandemic. It’s regulated, but by a body where membership is voluntary. It’s privileged. Only ships with 500 or fewer berths can make landings in Antarctica, and those passengers typically pay at least $15,000 for an 11-to-20-day cruise. (Some pay two or three times that.) And it’s complicated. Antarctica is a continent with no country, no full-time inhabitants, and no one who is obligated to make decisions, defend it, or act on its behalf.

The luxury era

A lot has changed since 1966, when the first tourists set foot on Antarctica, led by Lars-Eric Lindblad, whose pioneering trips also opened the Arctic and the Galapagos to tourism. Lindblad is widely regarded as the father of ecotourism and modern adventure tourism, and more than 50 years later, Lindblad Expeditions is run by his son, Sven Lindblad. The younger Lindblad’s first season in Antarctica was in 1973, on his father’s ship. In those nascent days of Antarctic tourism, they often had to wing it, he recalls. “How we got out of that year alive, I don’t know.”

Advancements in ship design make a voyage to the Antarctic a lot safer — and cushier — than it used to be, explains Thomas P. Illes, a shipping and cruise analyst, adviser, and university lecturer. “Optimized sea-keeping characteristics, ice-strengthened hulls, protected fuel tanks, innovative environmental, navigation and maneuvering technology — these all improve safety, environmental impact and passenger comfort,” he says. Today, purpose-built expedition ships are a far cry from the hulking research vessels of old, and for new ships, luxury is most often the norm. Balcony cabins, panoramic suites, saunas, Jacuzzis, bars and, on some ships, multiple gourmet restaurants, ensure that however harsh the conditions outside, there’s plenty of pampering onboard.

Not every cruise is a five-figure expenditure. Another 18,000 people saw the Antarctic Peninsula from a distance in 2019-2020, aboard one of the many “cruise-only” voyages on big ships that per industry rules are not allowed to discharge passengers on the continent. These itineraries can run as low as $3,000, though Illes jokes that from those ships, “sure, you’ll see penguins — as little black dots.”

But the steep price tag of high-end expedition voyages doesn’t appear to be a disincentive to travelers — 14 new expedition vessels are scheduled to come online in 2021, most with fewer than 200 berths. Ice-classed, luxury vessels cost from $65 million to nearly $200 million to build and outfit, and there would be no supply without demand. Expedition cruise lines report encouraging levels of interest and bookings for the 2021-2022 Antarctic season, and even greater enthusiasm for 2022-2023.

A continent without a voice

Tourism to Antarctica is regulated by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), founded in 1991 by seven tour operators, including Lindblad. Though membership is voluntary, IAATO now has more than 100 members, all directly or peripherally engaged in Antarctic tourism. Members must agree that their activities in the region have “minor and transitory impact,” according to Gina Greer, the organization’s executive director. Greer’s been with IAATO for a year and says she’s not found a more cohesive organization. “The collaboration among members is high. They’re all working together to help manage activities and be respectful to the environment. They all benefit from their shared knowledge of the region and agree on guidelines that everyone works to meet.”

Still, when it comes to setting and enforcing the rules of Antarctic tourism, from ships’ emissions to the rules around shore excursions, IAATO lacks teeth. Only the Antarctic Treaty System, an international agreement to protect the stateless continent, has any real authority. First enacted during the Cold War and now signed onto by 52 nations, including the United States, Russia, China and Australia, the treaty ensures that the Antarctic will be used only for peaceful and scientific purposes. It sets guidelines for tourism and tour operators, but on a day-to-day basis, adherence and enforcement function on something of an honor system that, so far, is working. “Gross violations and noncompliance with agreed-upon rules would very likely ruin the business’s reputation,” says Illes. “And the people in power” — he cites Sven Lindblad as one of the IAATO’s most formidable voices — “would probably not just stand idly by and certainly not keep quiet.”

One after another, the tour operators, marketing staff, scientists and industry experts interviewed for this article echoed the same refrain — it’s in the cruise industry’s own best interests to protect Antarctica. “The industry wants a future,” Lindblad says. And if there’s no Antarctica, there’s no business. “Beyond a moral ethos, there’s a business model,” says Lisa Bolton, general manager of product for Scenic, whose Scenic Eclipse is one of the most luxurious ships operating in the region. “You have to protect your income, and our income is Antarctica.”

Even Illes, who as a third-party observer is quick to criticize the cruise industry as well as the broader travel industry, says IAATO operators are different. “They know their business model is based on an intact nature,” he says. “Even though it’s self-regulated, it’s one of the very few examples where it still works very well.”

And Illes, who has made several journeys to Antarctica, says that is true from the CEOs to the people literally at the helms of the ships. “At 3 a.m. on a ship’s bridge, people speak candidly,” he says. “All the operators and crew I’ve encountered on expedition vessels act very differently from most mainstream cruise operators in many ways.”

Daniela Liggett, an associate professor specializing in polar tourism and Antarctic governance at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, points out that a lot of the expedition leaders are former researchers themselves. “These are educators who are passionately speaking on behalf of the Antarctic and wilderness and conservation initiatives.” Plus, she adds, “many of the smaller-scale operators are passionate about Antarctic conservation, and that’s why they started in the first place.”

Antarctic ambassadors?

“Sustainable travel, with a minimal footprint and environmental impact, is our mission,” says Monique Ponfoort, CEO of long-standing polar expedition cruise line Aurora, one of the earliest IAATO members. It is a mission that is ostensibly shared by all expedition operators in the region, and one that’s based on a genuine desire to protect the region and educate guests. Most operators provide monetary or collaborative support to conservation initiatives in the region, and Liggett says they help in other ways, whether through sharing information, bringing supplies to remote research stations or letting scientists hitch a ride home — though presumably not in one of the Jacuzzi suites.

Yet tourism in Antarctica is not without impact. Most of the travelers who have life-changing experiences on their cruises sail back to Ushuaia, Argentina, from where they head home on carbon-coughing long-haul flights. And even though tourists traipse on just a tiny percent of Antarctica’s landmass, they still leave their mark, Liggett says, in the form of footpaths, soil erosion, unintentional disturbances of nesting birds, and underwater noise from ships’ engines and motorized small watercraft.

Safety is another concern, as more and more ships head to the region, inevitably with less experienced crew. “This is not a place for amateurs,” says Lindblad. “You go to the Antarctic and you go to a wild and woolly place.” One major fear is that a maritime accident, especially one involving a big ship in a region with no emergency infrastructure, could result in high loss of life and a devastating environmental disaster.

“Tourism doesn’t ‘benefit’ Antarctica,” says Lindblad, whose company runs all carbon-neutral cruises. “It’s not like there are local communities that are helped economically. The impact,” he says, “is in how people think about the world more broadly, and Antarctica is a stage to help understand the implications of climate change.”

“We all take the education part of our mission seriously,” Bolton says. “Every operator has different types of programming, but it all contains a green, environmentally friendly message.” She refers to Antarctica as a living classroom and cites the “now I get it” moments that so many passengers have. “Seeing your first iceberg calve makes you realize how small you are and what your place on the planet actually is.”

And the unscripted interactions with animals also make a big impression on guests. While IAATO rules dictate that humans must stay five meters away from wildlife, wildlife can come to them. And it often does, whether it’s a friendly penguin, a seal fleeing a pod of hungry orcas or an intrigued cetacean. “From personal experience,” says Bolton, who recalls being in a kayak when a whale breached beside her, “being snotted on by a whale is a marvelous interaction with nature.”

Heath is a writer based in Allerona, Italy. Her website is elizabethfheath.com. Find her on Instagram: @myvillageinumbria.

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice web page.