Polar tourism has been around since there were people who wanted to see icebergs, charismatic mega-fauna and the culture of the polar regions. The earliest Arctic tourists (not counting indigenous people who just went out to see something) were individual anglers, hunters, mountaineers, and adventurers attracted to abundant fisheries, exotic wildlife species, and remote regions. Many articles describing their recreational pursuits appeared in the growing genre of recreation, mountaineering, hunting, and fishing periodicals that emerged in the mid-1800’s (Conway, 1897; Williams, 1859; Suydam, 1899). During the same era, several pioneering travelers to the Arctic published journals that became popular guide books for future Arctic tourists (Lainige, 1807; Scidmore, 1885, 1896). The relatively cheap accessibility of much of the polar north ensured interest and growth began much earlier than the polar south. Mass tourism has thrived in the Arctic since the mid-1800’s when steamships and railroads aggressively expanded their transportation networks providing access to numerous destinations throughout the Arctic. Tourism entrepreneurs, such as Thomas Cook, formed partnerships with railroad and steamship companies and thereby pioneered the popular tourism industry (Brendon, 1991). By the 1880’s, the “Land of the Midnight Sun” in the Scandinavian Arctic and Alaska, and the popular excitement of the Klondike Gold Rushes firmly established the Arctic’s mass tourism market (Dufferin, 1873; duChaillou, 1881, Pacific Steamship Company, 1885).

The earliest visitors to the southern polar regions of Antarctica and surrounding sub-Antarctic islands (1700’s) were whalers and sealers focused solely on exploitation for financial gain, and explorers like Captain Cook who circumnavigated the Antarctic continent but never saw it. By the late 1800’s science, pursuit of knowledge and geographical claim became primary reasons for the long, dangerous and expensive undertaking of getting to Antarctica after the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London (1895) passed a general resolution calling on scientific societies throughout the world to promote the cause of Antarctic exploration “in whatever ways seem to them most effective”.

By the early 1900’s the first hints of other reasons to visit began making their way into the prose of the time. Words like beauty, magnificence, serenity and vastness began to compete in the narrative. Elements of adventure for its own sake and activities akin to tourism began appearing. Back in the civilized world people desperately wanted to know what it was like down there. Prior to the 1960’s unless you’d been a sealer/whaler, a historic era explorer/adventurer or a scientist at a base the ability to get to Antarctica was cut off by its sheer remoteness and the need for a vessel or aeroplane. Commercial tourism to Antarctica started in the late 1950s when 500 or so fare-paying passengers traveled aboard Chilean and Argentine naval vessels each season to visit the South Shetland Islands on re-supply missions to research stations. Antarctic tourism in the manner we see it in today is widely acknowledged as being pioneered in the late 1960’s by Lars-Eric Lindblad and the purpose-built MS Lindblad Explorer. This vessel paved the way for tourists to visit and enjoy the world’s last pristine continent by means of “expedition cruising” — defined by the industry as cruising coupled with education as a major theme.

By the late 1980s, four companies were conducting ship borne tourism to the Antarctic as well as one land operator (ANI) who pioneered commercial tourism flights to Antarctica in 1985. These flights took clients to a seasonal inland field camp for guided climbs, ski expeditions and other adventurous activities.

By the 1991-92 season approximately 6,400 tourists visited Antarctica, traveling aboard ten different expedition vessels operated by six operators plus the land-based activities of the one land operator.

Since then Antarctic ship-borne tourism has seen astronomical growth with most people visiting the Antarctic Peninsula (>53,000 in 2018/19 season)

Advances in transport technology have contributed most to the rapid growth of mass polar-tourism. Advanced ship technology together with improved marine charts and navigational aids have allowed cruise ship travel in the north and south to increase exponentially (in the Arctic, tourist numbers have grown from about 1 million in the early 1990s to more that 1.5 million today. In Antarctica, the number of ship-borne tourists increased by 430% in last 14 years and land-based tourists by 757% in last 10 years).

As a modern industry, polar tourism, and its need for guides/interpreters and auxiliary staff can be broken into five market segments. They are best defined in terms of their primary attractions and the ways those attractions are experienced. This approach to classifying tourist markets explicitly acknowledges some crucial factors: tourist expectations, the service delivery methods used to realize those expectations, the distinct impacts resulting from those activities and the emergent need to guide and provide safety management or interpretation.


  • The mass market, comprised of tourists primarily attracted to sightseeing within the bounds of pleasurable surroundings of comfortable transport and accommodations.
  • The sport fishing and hunting market, with participants who pursue unique fish and game species within a wilderness setting.
  • The ecotourism market, consisting of tourists who seek to observe wildlife species in their natural habitats, and experience the beauty and solitude of natural areas. These tourists are also concerned with conserving the environment and improving the well-being of local people.
  • The adventure tourism market, providing a sense of personal achievement and exhilaration from meeting challenges and potential perils of outdoor sport activities.
  • The culture and heritage tourism market, a very distinct market comprised of tourists who either want to experience personal interaction with the lives and traditions of native people, learn more about a historical topic that interests them, or personally experience historic places and artifacts.

All eight Arctic nations, and their seas and oceans host all five markets (climate change is aiding these markets with easier access to places hitherto impossible) and this creates a very diverse and vibrant tourism industry in the north. Antarctica largely relies on ship tourism and caters for the mass market with only a minor culture/heritage market based around Sth Georgia and its Shackleton and whaling history but this sector has potential for growth as nature sites come under increasing pressure.

The modern challenge of not only environmentally and culturally, but safely and educationally, managing tourism across these vast lands and seas is the new new narrative of the polar tourism industry.


Polar Guides are at the peak of the polar tourism experience (we use the word ‘guide’ to encompass any field staff, lecturers, specialist excursion experts and any personnel who work in the field with clients). They work at a vital cross-roads providing: valuable and interesting information and stories about the landscapes and wildlife, skilled safety management for each experience and the indefinable human qualities of fun, humor and passion for these places that keeps clients coming back. This is seen time and time again and part of the reason why polar tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry.

The concept of minimum standards of operation for polar guides isn’t new and  people have tried to create programs around a few key skill areas only to be stymied by lack of support from key stakeholders, lack of funding, lack of experience in creating an international education system and simply lack of time to see such an ambitious project gain traction. And despite a large, and increasing, number of operators, exponentially increasing customer numbers and increased concern over environmental and safety considerations there has never been an attempt to create industry standards for minimum skills competency as a polar guide.

There are a range of national qualifications for land-based polar tourism activities across northern polar countries but these frameworks haven’t worked across international borders.

Ship-based tourism is regulated, on ships, by International Maritime law (the IMO International Maritime Organisation 1978 Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW) but this still doesn’t address field-craft for guides running excursions. Mass market ship-based polar tourism has never had minimum standards requirements for guides, lecturers, interpreters and field staff in core skill sets (except 1st Aid training). Some companies train to, and have set, their own standards. This works for them but doesn’t foster a forum or community for discussion, transparency or creating industry-wide norms that benefit not only the companies but regulatory bodies, staff and clients alike.

Broader regulation does exist and is used extensively in areas like:

  • Technical standards for specific sub-skills (sea kayaking, scuba-diving, skiing, snow-shoeing, mountaineering) In general, a greater need and focus on customer service differentiates Polar Guiding from Outdoor Education Teachers, Instructors and Adventure Guides. Customer service techniques for polar guides balance service with safety and environmental protocols designed specifically for polar regions.
  • Hospitality and guest services standards,
  • Environmental regulations for environmental behaviour and site specific guidelines (IAATO/AECO site specific guidelines).
  • Sovereign laws for use of firearms.

Some-what akin to fitting a square peg in a round hole, using external qualification systems (Maritime qualifications, Royal Yachting Association, Coastguard and Maritime small boat operators, National Outdoor certificates etc) to achieve some manner of minimum skill standard is at best a stopgap measure. These external systems themselves are well established and good for what they are designed for, but none of them can examine to the specific requirements of a guide in the polar environment.

Despite all these other systems, in 2017 there was still the option to self-regulate in terms of minimum standards. Self-regulation within a framework of a non-partisan professional association was always going to be a much cheaper and preferable option for all stakeholders and offered an opportunity to really change the game in polar tourism.

The PTGA was borne out of the IAATO/AECO Field Staff Conference in Toronto in 2015. During sessions and discussions there were calls for IAATO/AECO (who represent the Operators) to “do something about standards”. A group of industry veterans started discussing the possibility and began drafting core competencies and syllabi and passing these around for comment. The response was positive and encouraged them to commit to, and create a legal Professional Industry Association and begin the process of building the complex structure of the emergent Polar Tourism Guides Association.

The polar regions have been a frontier forever – until now. The glory days in mass tourism of being alone and having your own adventure, or misadventure, have all but ended and now we must consider the broad spectrum of needs for all polar tourism operators. Sometime in the future we need to encompass the northern domain of smaller scale township or outfitter polar tourism and activities like dog-sledding, trekking, hut-to-hut x-country skiing, sea ice camping, sea kayaking, ice fishing, ice-climbing, winter camping under the northern lights and skidoo safari. Defining minimum standards of operation is a broad and complex terrain map.

We have no doubt the future will be about providing professional services to all segments of the polar tourism market while at the same time appeasing regulatory bodies, actively preserving the environments we work in and creating ambassadors out of the clients who venture into this weird and wonderful polar world.