Visiting Antarctica is a unique experience and the southern summer marks its 50th anniversary of tourism. Is it on your bucket list?
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The first tourists
In late January 1966 the late Lars-Eric Lindblad brought the first lucky tourists to the Antarctic Peninsula on a small Chilean vessel. Fifty of them landed at the Melchior Islands on January 23 and spent the next few days seeing Antarctica's wonders without the distraction of science or exploration that had characterised all those who had come before.
That historic voyage gave rise to Lindblad Expedition Cruises, now partnered with National Geographic to offer adventure cruises to all the world's wild places on a fleet of expedition vessels.
Sea tourism in Antarctica began in the 1960s
It also resulted in the “little red ship” the Lindblad Explorer that set the standard for all Antarctic tourist expeditions to follow. Indeed, Lars-Eric's use of a small ship as a floating base for shore excursions and iceberg cruises by inflatable Zodiac craft remains the standard operation for Antarctic cruises today.
The tourism boom
Following the Wall coming down and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, a lot of small ice-strengthened Russian scientific vessels became available. Antarctic tourism boomed – though it wasn't until the millennium summer of 1999-2000 that tourist numbers exceeded 10,000 per year.
Visit Antarctica to see the spectacular icebergs and sculptures!
However, lots of vessels and tourists alarmed the scientists and the Antarctic Treaty parties and they decided that it had to be regulated. The code of the industry body IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) had already adopted many of Lars-Eric's environmental standards about not going too close to wildlife, leaving no sign that you'd ever been there, and these became the mandatory tourist protocol: Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic.
What would they have seen?
Those first tourists would have experienced much the same sense of wonder that we do today. Beaches crowded with penguins, seals resting on icebergs, and whales emerging close to ships and boats are Antarctic highlights. The weather that ranges from clear, still, blue sky days to fog, wind and summer snow remains unchanged.
Tourists get to witness the local wildlife going about their day
Tourism has changed over the past decade, however. Many of the older, smaller Russian ships simply became too old and stopped coming, especially when new cleaner fuel regulations were brought in.
There was a move towards larger European vessels that traded ice capabilities for more comfort inside. Though, once there are much more than a hundred passengers on board, the rules change about where you can go and how excursions are conducted. Now the annual visitors to Antarctica number around 30,000.
The mesmorising landscape of South Georgia
The drawback for many potential tourists visiting Antarctica has been the barrier of the Drake Passage, the toughest stretch of water in the world. However, now that too can be avoided.
How to get there
Charter flights from Punta Arenas in southern Chile to the airstrip at Frei Base on sun-Antarctic King George Island can bring in tourists who meet a ship there and travel around Antarctica before flying back to Chile. This has been in place for several years now. So too is the option to sail down and fly back with Stanley in the Falkland Islands as ship’s departure/arrival point.
These lucky tourists were only an arms length from a whale!
Just like every other destination, Antarctica already has those who lament the passing of the “good old days” when fewer ships gave more flexibility and perhaps some operator’s landings were conducted less professionally than they are today.
Old hands mourn for the loss of the unavoidable Drake Passage that both acted as a barrier and worked as a bonding force on those onboard. A Force 12 gale off Cape Horn does tend to unite you in adversity.
Spot a fur seal on Deception Island
If you’re tempted by Antarctica visit www.iaato.org and look at the offerings of its members. There’s a range of destinations including South Georgia, the Falklands, crossing the Antarctic Circle or venturing into the Weddell Sea, and more specialist voyages for photographers, birders and whale watching.
If you have any questions about visiting Antarctica email our travel editor: email@example.com
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