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Continental Divide

Tales from the Frontier

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Iceberg ahead: A ship brings visitors to the pristine White Continent.

From the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Should I stay or should I go?

Here’s my recurring dream of Antarctica: I’m walking on a frozen landscape dotted with blue-tinted icebergs. Stately emperor penguins walk near me as seals rocket out of ice holes and skid to a stop. I hop into a Zodiac and glide through the chilly waters of the least explored land on Earth. It’s just my kind of place—wild and unconquered. So why am I hesitating to pack my parka and turn this dream into a reality?

Back in 2003, I led an international research team to study how tourists were morphing from sedentary vacationers sipping mimosas by the hotel pool into hardy adventurers tasting bush brew in the rain forest. The resulting publication, “Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism’s Global Footprint,” confirmed that our vacations are expanding into Earth’s last wild frontiers. Not all of that is a bad thing, but it made me wonder whether the risks of exposing Antarctica to North Face–wearing, camera-heavy humans—while the fragile continent is already under assault from carbon overload—can be justified. Unlike other places, where local communities rely on the income from tourism dollars and can become active partners in conservation as a result, there are no locals in Antarctica. Its year-round population consists of some 1,100 shivering scientists from all over the world.

According to the 108-member International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), whose mission includes advocating for more environmentally responsible tourism, those scientists can use some help. “The benefits derived from sustainable tourism, such as better knowledge and appreciation of Antarctica, are substantial,” says Steve Wellmeier, IAATO’s executive director. He notes that IAATO member companies and their passengers contributed more than $2.3 million over the past seven years to scientific and conservation efforts in Antarctica and the subantarctic region. And he points out, rightly, that Antarctica offers a remarkable educational experience for travelers, promoting greater awareness to protect it. Indeed, at a time when nations are salivating over Antarctica’s untapped minerals and oil reserves, tourism’s ability to stave off industrial exploitation could be the continent’s great salvation.

Yet, most efforts remain voluntary, and there are growing concerns that profit-minded tour companies offering “unforgettable Antarctica voyages with confidence and style for every kind of traveler,” as one brochure advertises, just might become an ecological threat themselves.

We could be just an oil spill away from destroying the pristine environment we marvel at: Four years ago, the M.S. Explorer, operated by Toronto-based Gap Adventures (since renamed G Adventures), slammed into an iceberg, sending 154 passengers and crew into lifeboats as the ship sank into Antarctica’s cobalt waters, holding thousands of gallons of fuel oil and leaking at least some of it. (Disclosure: National Geographic Society also runs tours to Antarctica in partnership with Lindblad, and its expedition cruise ship was the first to respond to the ship’s distress signal and offer aid.) The Explorer was an IAATO member pledged to uphold the organization’s high standards, but an independent investigation found that the captain had misjudged the ice conditions and that the engine room hatch had faulty seals, which contributed to the ship going down. Wellmeier described the investigation report as “a wake-up call for our members.” Since then, however, four other tourist ships have struck uncharted rocks or run aground, setting off more international alarm bells. Dutch researcher Machiel Lamers, who has studied the impact of tourism on Antarctica, has said that self-regulation among tour operators is not enough.

Since 1986, when fewer than a thousand intrepid tourists journeyed to Antarctica, the numbers have grown dramatically, reaching 46,069 in 2008, before the economic recession slowed things down. But with more than 25,000 visitors still making the trip this year, fears about potential harm to Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems continue. A study led by scientists at the University of Madrid found that damage to slow-growing vegetation in Antarctica’s extreme climate can occur with as little as 20 footsteps, in addition to the introduction of invasive species and changes in the behavior of wildlife. The largest impact remains the trip to get there—each tourist generates approximately 4.4 tons of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, the single greatest threat to Antarctica. The World Tourism Organization predicts that global tourism, spearheaded by the growing economies of China and India, will almost double from nearly 900 million international travelers last year to some 1.6 billion in 2020. As these vacationers hit the road and the sea, it may be just a matter of time before Antarctica reaches a crisis point.

The bright side in all of this (yep, there’s a bright side) is that the voices calling for stricter travel regulations are more authoritative and numerous. In 2009, voting members of the Antarctic Treaty (no single country has jurisdiction over Antarctica) agreed to ban trips to shore from cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers. And last August, the International Maritime Organization halted the use and transport of heavy fuel oil by visiting ships, reducing the risk of damaging spills. It’s a start.

Few are calling for an outright halt to tourism on the White Continent. The challenge is to get the balance right. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands have proposed limiting the number of “tourism days” each year and auctioning them off to the highest-bidding travel companies, with the income going to support monitoring. But visiting Antarctica should not be only for those who can fork over the most cash. Rather, I think there should be an international lottery system offering a limited number of permits that gives all tour outfitters a chance, provided they commit to environmentally friendly practices and support for conservation.

My advice to travelers eager to visit: Find out if the tour company is a member of IAATO—it should be—and ask about its efforts to protect Antarctica and how you can be part of those efforts. Most companies know that it is simply good business to respond to customer choices. When enough travelers make conservation a fundamental goal of their Antarctica trips, we have a chance to get tourism there right. Come to think of it, I should go—on those terms.

Editor at large Costas Christ writes about sustainability and tourism issues. E-mail your comments to

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