Antartica emerges—frozen and challenging and in all its pristine glory—beyond the southern tip of South America and across the Drake Passage. It casts an ever-growing fascination among adventurous travelers, explorers, scientists, but also high-end tourists hungry for one-of-a-kind experiences. Each austral summer, thousands of tourists brave the stormy south seas to arrive at the scientific research bases that welcome visitors. They overcome the rigors of the region’s climate and the distances that must be covered to reach the continent’s coast and must adhere to strict environmental rules exacted within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty. But all obstacles pale in comparison to the pleasure of visiting the icy continent.
Antarctica’s allure rests on its condition as one of the world’s most exotic and truly unique destinations. In a world hungry for excitement, the possibility of facing a deserted, frozen landscape at the end of the world is very appealing. The average temperature doesn’t rise above 0ºC (32ºF) in the warmest period. During the long winter, temperatures are extreme, as low as -60ºC (-76ºF). The flora is hardly attractive since it’s limited to lichens, mosses, fungi, and two species of very scarce plants. Fauna sightings are spectacular but occasional. The wildlife consists mostly penguins, seals, walruses, elephant seals, whales, and rookeries of birds such as cormorants and seagulls. Still, if you are a seasoned traveler who prides himself on knowing the world, Antartica should be your next frontier.
The best way to visit Antartica is by sea. Big luxury cruise ships that can carry over 500 passengers, medium ships with anywhere from 100-500 passengers, and exclusive sail vessels and yachts with up to 12 people navigate the Antarctic coast in comfort.
The largest ships are unable to dock on any of the bases. They sail among the islands and icebergs near the Antarctic Peninsula. Most tourists who want the experience of walking on Antarctic soil prefer the medium size cruises, which offer visits to bases or specific islands with an overnight stay in one of them. The exclusive sailboats provide a greater interaction between their passengers and the land. Their smaller size allows for exploring places beyond the reach of the larger vessels. Cruise itineraries vary according to the size of the ship and the traveler’s preferences, but, in general, Antarctic sojourns last from ten to twenty days, including the two or three days from the originating port to Antarctica.
The International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators (IAATO) has 63 registered vessels with authorization to sail the region. The number includes some of the leading names in the cruise industry: Silversea, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, and Princess Cruises, among others. The average profile of the tourist who braves Antarctica is someone of middle age or older and used to high standards of luxury and comfort. The cost of the cruises tends to vary according to the plan and the company selected, but they can average between US $6,000-US $35,000.
The growing flux of tourists to Antartica has raised some alarms. Based on recent reports, the scientific community has expressed concern about the ecological impact of intense human activity on the continent. They question Antarctica’s readiness to receive large numbers of visitors without an irreversible degradation of its ecosystems. It must be pointed out that most of the visits tend to concentrate on hardly ten places along the Antarctic coast, which are authorized to receive tourists under the Antarctic Treaty. This activity produces about $355 million a year for tour operators, but no benefits for the region. ■