Antarctica, or the South Pole of Earth, is the coldest continent and temperatures often drop below -73 degrees Celsius. And while photos often show snow and ice covering its sprawling landscapes, it is a desert where very little snow and rain falls.
But the extreme cold isn’t enough to stop tourists from making the long trip to the continent. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), an organization jointly run by 100 travel organizations around the world, carefully tracks and regulates visits to Antarctica.
WATCH: Hidden colony of 1.5 million penguins discovered on Antarctica’s Danger Islands
Antarctica travel expected to reach ‘peak levels’
Between April 2016 and 2017, 44,376 travellers came to the continent — that number has been rising steadily since 2011. In the early 1990s, there were about 5,000 tourists visiting Antarctica each year.
Amanda Lynnes, a spokeswoman for IAATO told Global News that the number of visitors peaked in the 2007-2008 season, but then dropped amid the economic downturn and a ban on heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters. But now, tourism is expected to keep rising.
“We are now approaching peak levels again in terms of overall numbers,” she said. “Polar tourism is strongly linked to GDP as you might expect. At the moment, we are expecting numbers to continue rising steadily.”
The continent is expecting 46,385 visitors in the current season, ending April 2018.
But why are travellers visiting a region with little infrastructure, bitterly cold weather, and enduring a gruelling amount of travel?
WATCH: Scientists heading to Antarctica to view new ecosystem following iceberg’s split from ice shelf
Toronto-based travel expert Barry Choi explains that the phenomenon of “last-chance tourism” may have something to do with it. The travel style has been rising the past years, with Forbes magazine predicting it will be the top travel trend in 2018.
“Last-chance tourism is basically people trying to see sights that are under threat, either due to over-tourism, weather or nature, and there’s a real possibility that in a few years, these attractions won’t be available to the public anymore,” Choi told Global News.
Some cities in Italy, with rapidly rising water levels, are included in last-chance tourism. Other popular destinations include Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Choi explained that tourism to these sites can put an even bigger strain on the struggles the environment is already facing — but that hasn’t curbed popularity.
“There are glaciers you can hike, places that are more sustainable than Antarctica,” he explained. “But the problem is with last-chance tourism, people have done Alaska, people have done Glacier National Park, they want to be able to say they’ve gone to Antarctica.”
The travel expert added that those who want to take these kinds of trips should do in-depth research, and opt for sustainable tourism companies. Choi explained these types of companies will invest some of their profits back into local communities and environmental preservation.
Cruise companies and expeditions
Lynnes, however, is more skeptical that last-chance tourism is drawing visitors. She said there are several other reasons why tourists are flocking to Antarctica.
“People go to Antarctica for all sorts of reasons, from visiting the ‘seventh continent’ to simply fulfilling a lifetime longing to see an Antarctic penguin,” she said.
Regardless of why tourists visit the region, travel companies seem to be catching on to the rising popularity.
Several cruise companies are offering trips to Antarctica. Among the notable ones is the National Geographic Explorer, which offers a “Journey to Antarctica” led by an expert at the travel company affiliated with the magazine.
On its website, the National Geographic explains that travellers will board a state-of-the-art ship from either Buenos Aires, Argentina or Santiago, Chile. They’ll then explore surrounding waterways and islands before arriving in Antarctica.
“Glide around enormous tabular icebergs by Zodiac, walk along beaches covered with thousands of penguins, and kayak amid abundant marine life,” the website reads.
WATCH: World’s largest marine reserve to be created in Antarctica in historic multi-country agreement
The entire trip lasts 14 days.
Lynnes explained that all companies offering trips to the continent must seek a permit to travel to Antarctica. While the IAATO doesn’t necessarily promote tourism to the continent, most companies travelling to the region book through the organization. It lists all the approved tour operators on its website.
“We advocate and promote the practice of safe, environmentally responsible Antarctic tourism,” she said, explaining that all “tourism activities must have less than a minor or transitory impact on the environment.”
Climate change and Antarctica
From warming temperatures to melting ice, the effects of climate change on Antarctica are numerous. According to the British Antarctic Survey, the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet.
Some wildlife populations are declining, while others are adapting to the changing temperatures. Emperor penguin populations have declined by nearly 50 per cent in some areas, while Chinstrap penguins have become more common.
Another role the IAATO plays is monitoring whether visitors to the region are negatively affecting the environment. Lynnes explained the travel is still fairly limited, and many visitors are actually studying climate change’s effects on ice and wildlife, which she says helps more than hinders the region.
WATCH: Unprecedented ice melt in Antarctica
The main concern in terms of the environment, Lynnes added, is introducing non-native species to Antarctica.
“There’s a suite of procedures we developed to act against this,” she explained, “from disinfecting equipment and clothing to monitoring for invasive species. To date, there is no evidence of tourism introducing non-native species,” she said, but added that “monitoring is key.”
Canadian government’s Antarctica travel tips
The Canadian government says those travelling to Antarctica should be aware that there are no telephones or communication services available, other than at research stations. The stations may not be able to assist tourists who need to communicate with those outside the region.
“There are no tourist facilities on land,” the government’s website adds, other than the ones arranged prior to travel.
While scientific expeditions and organized tours are acceptable, Canadians are “strongly discouraged” from independent travel to Antarctica because there are no emergency services available, and there is a “potential harmful impact on the environment.”
For emergency assistance, Canadians can contact the government at (613) 996-8885.