A fine balance of demand and sustainability: Need-to-knows for selling Antarctica

TORONTO — Who could have foreseen the day when one of travel’s on-trend destinations would also be one of the most remote places on the planet?

The popularity of ‘The White Continent’ isn’t new, but it is growing exponentially. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) keeps stats on the number of travellers making landfall on Antarctica, and the growth trajectory tells the story.

About 20 years ago, in 2003-04, there were 19,385 visitors. By 2018-19, that number had more than doubled, to 46,705, with even more (55,875) arriving in the 2019-20 season, the last normal year before the pandemic.

In 2022-23, even with some countries barely out of pandemic travel restrictions, the number rose to 71,258.

The IAATO keeps track of visitors’ nationalities too. The 2003-04 bottom line included 548 Canadians, about 2.8% of the total. By 2022-23, there were 3,323 Canadians, now representing 4.6% of the total.

Antarctica is still by and large for the adventurous few. It’s increasingly a top-level expedition style of travel, with the price tag to go with it. The season is short too; most trips run mid-December through mid-February. No one is looking for Antarctica to out-sell Mexico and Cuba getaways any time soon.

But for increasingly well-travelled clients, who have explored the world and are now looking to tick the Seventh Continent off their bucket list, Antarctica may prove irresistible.


No doubt much of the momentum bringing travellers to Antarctica is climate change, and concerns for Antarctica’s future.

The IAATO operates within the Antarctic Treaty System, and part of its mission is to advocate and promote safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica.

U.S.-based Jeremy Clubb, who launched travel retailer Antarctica Cruises in July 2023 after 12+ years of running sister company Rainforest Cruises, says that as with any destination, especially ones with such delicate ecosystems, overtourism is always a concern, and rightly so.

Says Clubb: “Not just in terms of the well-being of the wildlife and their habitats, but also the essence of the destination. Part of the allure of Antarctica is its remote isolation, the romance of the Heroic Age of Exploration, and the considerable undertaking and lengthy voyage involved in even reaching it.”

The good news, he adds, is that travel operators in Antarctica have been proactive in self-regulating to protect the continent’s pristine ecosystem. The IAATO has been around since the 1990s, and member operators adhere to a set of guidelines and requirements, designed to mitigate everything from overcrowding to pollution to wildlife disruption.

“It’s important to remember that tourism to Antarctica can bring many benefits too,” says Clubb. “Experiencing first-hand the singular wonders of the White Continent can have a profound impact on travellers and engender awareness of, concern for, and activism about our planet’s greatest remaining terrestrial wilderness and its protection.”

Clubb also notes that many polar operators have also been the driving force behind the latest developments in ship design the world over, pioneering hydrodynamic efficiencies in hull shape and more sustainable hybrid fuel technologies.

Antarctica Cruises works with small ship operators that can access remote areas. Larger vessels with capacities over 500 passengers by law aren’t allowed to make landfall in Antarctica, says Clubb.

“While there are certainly more operators and visitors than ever before, it’s often overlooked that the growing number of larger ships carrying ‘cruise only’ passengers has played a large part in the growth in Antarctica’s visitor numbers,” he says. “Having comprised just 6% percentage of the total cruise visitors at the turn of the millennium to now accounting for 31% in the latest season’s figures, these vessels with capacities for more than 500 passengers aren’t actually permitted to make landings on the continent,” so their associated mass tourism has less of an impact.

More of a concern is the climate change crisis, says Clubb. “From its all too apparent impact on the ice shelves, water temperatures and wildlife, there’s arguably nowhere where its effects are as visible or worrying. I fear this is one of the main drivers of the overtourism conversation, with trips to Antarctica seemingly now all the more urgent as fear of its effects on the region heightens. I think it’s fair to say that there could well be an element of travellers prioritizing the destination now before things get any worse.”


Princess Cruises is one of the big ship cruise lines offering cruise-only (i.e. no landfall) sailings in Antarctica. Its 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess, for example, offers a 16-day Antarctica & Cape Horn sailing that includes four ‘scenic cruising’ days around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Princess first sailed to Antarctica in 2008 and is a member of the IAATO, and adheres to the same practices to ensure safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the region, a spokesperson for Princess tells Travelweek.

Travellers from Ontario and B.C. show strong interest for the cruise line’s Antarctica voyages “year over year,” says Princess. For 2024 Princess has more itineraries, more lengths of voyages and more departure dates to South America and Antarctica than in the past.

Meanwhile Silversea is one of several luxury cruise operators that have gone big into expedition cruising with smaller but very high-end ships, for land exploration in Antarctica and beyond. Other high-end options to Antarctica are available with Seabourn, Hurtigruten, Ponant, Quark Expeditions, Scenic and more.

Silversea has been offering expedition cruising for more than 15 years, not only in the polar regions, but worldwide. Bob Simpson, Silversea’s VP Expeditions, Product Development, tells Travelweek he’s seen a sea change in travel to Antarctica in his years in the industry.

“The first Antarctic cruise tourists travelled in the early 1970s. At that time, there were only a very few small, basic and rugged vessels that operated to take travellers to Antarctica. Also, the types of travellers were very specific and had very particular interests in either science, wildlife, conservation or had some other precise predisposition to travel to Antarctica. For the vast population, it otherwise was not a travel destination either known or obtainable,” he says.

Simpson adds: “Even for me, the first time I was fortunate to travel to Antarctica in 1998, very few people still had any idea it was a destination that one could travel to and if one did, it still was in very basic accommodations, limited on board services and mainly purposeful just to see nature.”

Now, he says, “there has been tremendous demand for not only Antarctica, but regions of the world that are best suited to be reached by small expedition vessels.”

Misconceptions? There are a few. Simpson has talking points that travel advisors can use to address one of the biggest client concerns – the weather.

“We travel to Antarctica during the austral summer,” says Simpson. “I have been in Antarctica over the years and will be communicating with my friends or family in Chicago and regularly it is considerably warmer where I am in the heart of the Antarctic peninsula than it is in Chicago, and likely considerably warmer than it is for our friends north of the border in Canada. Typically, during the heart of the season (December and January) the weather can be quite pleasant.”

Clubb tells Travelweek he hears his fair share of misconceptions too. For instance, polar bears. “It’s surprising, but some folks still don’t realize you have to go to the Arctic to see them,” says Clubb.

Other common misconceptions often revolve around the infamously rough seas of the Drake Passage. Only about 30% of voyages actually experience rough weather and rough seas on the Drake Passage, notes Clubb, “so you are in fact much more likely to experience the placid waters of the ‘Drake Lake’ rather than the hairy ‘Drake Shake’ conditions.

Clubb says he also advises clients to expect average prices in the $13,500 range. “Cheaper cabins are available but tend to sell out much faster than the high-end berths, so it’s good to book as early as possible … and take advantage of any early-bird discounts in the process.” And specific departures can sell out fast, especially around the December holidays which coincide with peak season, having the mildest weather, longest daylight hours, and prime penguin chick and seal pup viewing.

And these are expeditions, meaning clients shouldn’t be rattled by charter flight delays with fly-cruise trips, or other weather-related changes. “Remember, here it is ice and weather that dictate polar proceedings, not clocks, and calendars,” says Clubb.

“Every expedition is unique, so it’s best to absolve yourself of any preconceived expectations and simply enjoy the spoils of this otherworldly destination. The only thing to hold you back is your sense of adventure.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 31, 2023 issue of Travelweek. To read the issue, click here.

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