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History of Polar Tourism


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 (>90,000 in 2022/23 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 than 1.5 million today. In Antarctica, the number of ship-borne tourists increased by 430% in the last 14 years and land-based tourists by 757% in the last 10 years).

The big question for the world to now answer is – how many people are too many? Should polar tourism numbers be capped or restricted?