the dark side of antarctica tourism

The Dark Side of Antarctic Tourism: Is Visiting Antarctica Worth It?

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Why is tourism in Antarctica bad?

Antarctica conjures images of majestic icebergs, mystical auroras, and cute penguin colonies. This remote continent is on many travelers’ bucket lists as an adventurous destination to experience nature at its most raw and exhilarating.

However, Antarctica’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination has a dark side that many don’t consider when dreaming of an Antarctic cruise.

As an avid traveler who has been fortunate to visit Antarctica myself, I’ve witnessed firsthand the concerning rise in human activity in this fragile environment.

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The rise in human visitors is putting huge pressure on this fragile polar environment and its wildlife.

You might be wondering, how many tourists visit Antarctica each year?

Over 46,000 visitors flocked to Antarctica in the 2018-19 season and visitors increased year on year. However according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a record 105,331 people visited Antarctica during the 2022-23 season, which is an enormous increase from the previous season 2021-22, which only saw around 23,000 visitors, according to Statista.

Scroll on to read all the details including facts and data about the rise in tourism around Antarctica.

Antarctica Tourism: Should you visit?

An article covering Antarctica tourism impacts on the environment, ethical issues surrounding Antarctica tourism, is it safe, and more.

The Antarctic Travel Boom

In the 1950s, Antarctica received fewer than 1,000 visitors per year. Fast forward to today and around 75,000 tourists flock there annually, with the numbers growing each year.

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Cruise ships make up over 90% of visitors, ferrying eager tourists from South America across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. The region’s spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife like penguins, seals and whales make it the most accessible and popular part of Antarctica.

Besides traditional cruise ships, there has also been a boom in luxury and adventure cruise options. Expedition cruises on smaller vessels can cost over $20,000 per person but promise experiences like kayaking, cross-country skiing, and up-close wildlife encounters.

Last chance tourism

This rising interest in visiting unspoiled Antarctica has been described as ‘’last chance tourism’’. People want to see this remote wilderness before it disappears due to climate change. However, this surge in human activity itself also threatens the continent.

The Environmental Impact

The pristine Antarctic environment is highly susceptible to human interference. As tourism activities rapidly expand, they risk damaging this fragile ecosystem in several concerning ways:


Despite strict regulations, cruises still produce pollution from fuel emissions, sewage discharges, and waste dumping. Sewage discharged into the ocean can spread bacteria to penguin and seal populations. 

Oil spills, though rare, are highly damaging in cold water. Even small quantities of fuel or toxic leakages introduce pollution to a previously near-pristine environment.

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Wildlife Disturbance

Visitors are drawn by the abundance of unique wildlife like whales, seals and penguin colonies. However, human presence can alter animal behavior and disrupt nesting, feeding and social interactions.

 Penguin chicks are especially vulnerable to distress. The cumulative impact of thousands of tourists viewing breeding colonies each season is still unknown.

I remember on my own Antarctic cruise seeing a penguin colony in distress after being approached by visitors who got too close.

Spread of Invasive Species

Invasive species brought accidentally from other regions can propagate quickly in Antarctica’s vulnerable ecosystem. For example, a study found over 60 types of alien microbes around two Antarctic research stations. 

Visitors may unknowingly transmit non-native plants and organisms. With tourism rising yearly, the risk of introduced species establishing themselves also increases.

While volunteering at an Antarctic research base last year, I witnessed how meticulous the scientists had to be about ensuring no foreign plant material was accidentally brought in.


With limited waste processing facilities in Antarctica, most solid waste and sewage generated by ships gets dumped at sea. 

An estimated 13,500 to 26,000 lbs of marine waste gets discarded in Antarctic waters each day of the tourist season. Much of this plastic trash gets washed back onshore, littering pristine beaches.

On my own trip, I was shocked by the amount of trash and waste produced even by our relatively small expedition cruise.

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The Dilemma for Antarctica’s Caretakers

Antarctica has no single government due to overlapping territorial claims. Instead, the Antarctic Treaty System regulates international cooperation and environmental protection. But the treaty has come under strain dealing with the tourism surge.

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Some advocates want stricter regulation on cruise activities to minimize environmental impact. For example, limiting visitor numbers per location and banning heavy fuels. 

But restrictions also hamper scientific research that relies on tourism vessels for transport.

Overall there is lack of detailed data on tourism’s environmental impact, making it hard to set appropriate policies. And enforcement over such a vast remote territory is already difficult with limited resources.

As demand increases, the dilemma of balancing access with conservation will only intensify. The mismatch between human numbers and Antarctica’s extreme fragility means small missteps can have big consequences.

The Dangerous Drake Passage

Before enjoying Antarctica’s beauty, all visitors must first endure the perilous Drake Passage crossing. This 800 km wide channel between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula sees some of the world’s roughest ocean conditions.

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Massive waves, gale-force winds, and tricky currents create perils for vessels traversing the Drake. Even modern ships with experienced captains have run into trouble in this unpredictable passage.

In December 2019, a Chilean Air Force plane went down carrying 38 people while flying over the Drake on a supply mission. While crashes are rare, this incident highlights the very real risks facing vessels that must cross this tempestuous strait.

For cruises, rough Drake conditions can also lead to passenger injuries from falls, canceled landings, and schedule delays. Visitors expecting to easily admire Antarctica’s landscapes may instead spend much of the trip battling seasickness in their cabins.

Is Tourism Worth the Cost?

Antarctica’s beauty inspires people from around the world to visit, but this enthusiasm risks harming the very wilderness that draws them. As traveler numbers rise, the question is:

Is having access worth the little-understood but likely escalating impact of human activity on this untouched continent?

Once damage occurs, Antarctica’s harsh environment means slow and difficult natural recovery. Scientists estimate up to 500 years for fragile moss beds, common in the Peninsula, to regrow after being crushed by foot traffic.

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Right now research on tourism’s effects lags far behind the industry’s unchecked momentum. But the signs are clear that our sheer numbers are disrupting natural balances.

Conservationists argue its better to avoid opening Antarctica at all than to unleash even more issues that compound over time. However, others believe seeing Antarctica firsthand creates advocates willing to help protect it.

With factors like climate change also bringing rapid transformations, solutions remain complex. But one thing is certain – Antarctica’s future depends on the choices we make today.

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Treading Lightly as a Visitor

For those who do journey South, acting responsibly is essential to minimize impact. Here are tips to be an eco-friendly Antarctic traveler:

  • Choose tour operators with strong environmental policies who comply with regulations. Smaller groups also tend to create less disruption.
  • Avoid landings at popular sites and times when penguin/seal breeding is at sensitive stages. Follow the rules and keep your distance from wildlife.
  • Prevent any potential introduction of microbes or plant material through clothing, gear, and footwear. Brush off loose material before landings.
  • Do not litter or leave any belongings behind. Be meticulous about collecting all personal items and trash.
  • Follow guidance from guides explicitly. Stay within marked paths, don’t disturb vegetation, and avoid nesting areas.
  • Don’t collect any biological, ecological, or geological souvenirs. Removing anything impacts Antarctica’s pristine state.

With conscious behavior from visitors, tourism can educate people on Antarctica’s magic without sacrificing it indefinitely. But the choice lies with each of us to value sustainability on such an awe-inspiring yet fragile frontier.

From my own travels in Antarctica, I learned how crucial it is to follow all guidance from expert staff to prevent any damage during landings and wildlife encounters.

antarctica tourism

Antarctica Tourism Facts

  • Over 46,000 tourists visited Antarctica in the 2018-2019 season. The numbers increase yearly.
  • 90% of visitors arrive via cruise ship. Only 10% arrive by air. Major cruise destinations include the Antarctic Peninsula and Ross Sea region.
  • In the 1957-58 season when tourism started, there were only 5 visitors to Antarctica. The first commercial tour happened in 1966.
  • The peak season runs from November to March. Over 90% of human activity occurs in these few summer months out of the entire year.
  • The average age of an Antarctic tourist is between 50-60 years old. Visitors tend to be well-educated and have above average incomes.
  • A tourist visit to Antarctica typically costs between $5,000 to $100,000+ depending on the type of cruise, cabin and activities.
  • The maximum ship passenger capacity in Antarctica was set at 500 people in 2003. Prior to this, some cruise liners carried up to 2,500 passengers.
  • There are around 80 landing sites in the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. A few sites get visited by over 10,000 people per season.
  • Tourism is concentrated on the Peninsula, which accounts for only about 2.5% of Antarctica’s total land area. The vast interior sees little human access.
  • Snowmobile use was banned in Antarctica in 2010 due to concerns over pollution, waste, and risks of oil spills.
  • Over 30,000 images are tagged #Antarctica on Instagram daily. Social media exposure continues to make Antarctica more popular with younger generations.

Antarctica Tourism: FAQs

Below are the most commonly-asked questions about tourism in Antarctica:

What are the negative impacts of tourism in Antarctica?

Tourism in Antarctica can harm the environment through pollution, wildlife disturbance, invasive species, and soil erosion. The large number of visitors puts pressure on this fragile polar ecosystem.

Why Antarctica should be closed to tourist?

Some argue Antarctica should prohibit tourism to protect its pristine wilderness from human impacts like pollution and prevent irreversible damage from increasing visitors. They believe limiting access is the only way to safeguard Antarctica.

How is tourism restricted in Antarctica?

The Antarctic Treaty limits tourism by regulating activities. Visitors must go with authorized operators, follow site guidelines, remain offshore, and minimize environmental impact. But enforcement remains challenging.

Are tourists allowed in Antarctica?

Yes, Antarctica welcomes tourists, but under strict guidelines. All visitors must travel with experienced operators that comply with Antarctic Treaty rules intended to reduce environmental impact and ensure safety.

Why are we not allowed to explore Antarctica?

Free individual exploration is banned to restrict access to Antarctica’s vulnerable habitats. All tourist activities must follow scientific advice and rules that limit foot traffic to prevent human damage to the continent’s pristine ecosystems.

Are cruises to Antarctica safe?

Antarctic cruises are generally safe but crossing the Drake Passage and icy conditions pose risks. Recent incidents highlight the region’s unpredictable weather and limitations on emergency rescue. Proper preparation is key.

How rough is a cruise to Antarctica?

The crossing from South America can see huge waves and storms in the Drake Passage, causing disruption and seasickness. But modern ships are equipped to handle normal conditions safely, providing stabilizers and medication.


Visiting Antarctica offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience to connect with a dreamlike wilderness. However, as human activity proliferates, we risk disrupting the ecological balances that shape this special place.

Conscientious travel habits and controlled visitor numbers will be key to safeguarding Antarctica’s environment despite more people wanting to explore it. If tourism is worth having, it must be through an approach where sustainability guides each decision.

For Antarctica’s sake, we must steer tourism onto a path where this continent can reveal its marvels for centuries more, not just in our lifetimes. 

Because once we lose such singular magnificence, no technology can recreate its magic. The only choice is to tread carefully so that generations to come can still wander in awe across the ancient ice.

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