Tourism in Antarctica started in the 1950s with 500 lonely soles traveling from Chile and Argentina. These days, about 40,000 people a year make the trek to the natural, unspoiled beauty of the world’s most southern continent. At twice the size of Australia, this land of ice, snow, rock and water, and vast wilderness gives many visitors a feeling of insignificance due to the sheer enormity of Antarctica. Add to this the adventure of getting here across the Southern Ocean and you have the trip of a lifetime and a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
The haunting landscape of Antarctica is home only to temporary residents. Researchers and scientists make up most long-stay visitors, with short-term summer travelers keeping the continent’s biggest industry – tourism - afloat. What visitors see during their trip is largely dictated by their mode of arrival, with those flying into the interior able to take small flights to other locations, such as Vinson Massif or the South Pole. Cruise ship passengers typically focus on the Ross Sea and Antarctic Peninsula areas, with stops at the two main ports of Paradise Bay and Neko Harbor.
The focus of many people’s trips is wildlife viewing, while others come for challenging expeditions across the desert landscape or sporting activities such as kayaking the icebergs or scaling peaks such as the Vinson Massif. It’s no secret that the journey to Antarctica is one of the world’s most costly, but it can also be considered one of the most unique, and a hugely memorable part of the trip. As a destination that will likely surpass all your expectations with its amazing, untouched landscapes and wildlife, the fare is worth every dime.
Most people arrive to Antarctica by cruise ship, but there is the option to fly in, too. There are only 58 vessels approved to preserve the sacred landmass. The most popular sea route is via Argentina’s Ushuaia. Small boats offer the best experience as they maximize landing time and offer greater freedom to explore on land. Large cruises, although faster, more stable in adverse weather and more luxurious, pose a bigger threat to the environment and present a larger logistical challenge in the event of an emergency. Some vessels carry helicopters or hovercraft, while others are fully-equipped with sports gear such as snorkels, kayaks and diving equipment.
Passengers can choose between cruises in 200-passenger, ice-strengthened ships or wildlife-centric vessels with a capacity of just 50 or anything in between. Private sailboats for four to 12 passengers are becoming an increasingly popular way to explore the continent, but gone are the days when yachts can just show up at a research station and expect a warm welcome. Advance warning due to heavy tourist traffic is needed. Fare-paying passengers on yachts are often expected to help with the steering and captain duties, making this form of transportation best suited to experienced sailors.
Flights to Antarctica’s interior depart from Chile’s Punta Arenas. Another option is to arrive by air from Novo Airbase in Cape Town. Most people tour by cruise ship, stopping to disembark at various landing sites, therefore accommodation is largely onboard ships, with coastal research station lodging very basic. Land visitors may be expected to sleep in an insulated tent, shower with water heated through solar or wind power, or share a dorm, with few stations equipped with saunas. Those willing to splurge can secure themselves a high-end berth on a cruise liner. Single rooms are charged at a premium, so make sure to bring a friend.
The world’s remotest continent can only be visited during its least inhospitable weather conditions, which means winter trips here are out. Visitors who arrive during the year’s five other months (November through March) still need to be prepared for itineraries to change on short notice according to the local climate.
- Cruise the Antarctic Peninsula and Ross Sea
- Get up close with emperor penguins and seals
- Take a guided climb of Vinson Massif
- Ski in the South Pole
- Take a dip in the Antarctic waters at Deception Bay
- Check out the most southerly active volcano on the planet, Mount Erebus
- Embark on a side trip to the Falkland Islands, the South Shetland Islands or the South Orkney Islands