In January 1966, the first ship carrying “citizen-explorers” arrived in Antarctica. At the time, only a handful of leisure travelers had ever considered visiting the world’s most remote land mass.
“I was aware that the idea of setting up tours to that frozen continent would be tangled with complications,” wrote Swedish-American entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindblad, who led that initial group of 57 onto the ice. “Going there might even be impossible.”
A half-century later, the near-impossible has become merely a challenge. While the threat of its ice sheet melting away occupies climatologists, wealthy travelers are scrambling to get there before the party’s over. The number of people landing on Antarctica is poised to surpass its annual record of 46,000, stimulated in part by new travel options and a surge of Chinese adventurers. On average, about 35,000-40,000 people visit each summer, which in Antarctica lasts from November to February. The peak came in the 2007-08 season, before the financial crisis dented Antarctic tourism.
Americans lead the bottom-of-the-world tour trade by a wide measure, with about 12,300 visiting in the 2014-15 season. That’s three times the number of travelers from Australia, who was followed by visitors from China, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Not surprisingly, the cruise industry dominates travel to the continent, with most landings on the Antarctic Peninsula, a roughly 40-hour voyage from the southern tip of Argentina across the Drake Passage. And while several operators will fly you to the interior, or even over the continent—including an Australian tour company that offers a 12½-hour sightseeing flight aboard a chartered Boeing 747—more than 90 percent of visitors come aboard ships.
Much of the buzz on Antarctica is coming from the luxury end of the cruise business, where the higher ticket prices meld better with the very-much-higher operating costs in a remote polar region where weather conditions are harsh and unpredictable. An Antarctic cruise is at least $10,000 and goes north from there, steeply, said Bob Levinstein, chief executive of CruiseCompete.com, which helps connect travel agents with cruise shoppers.
Two luxury lines, Silversea Cruises Ltd. and Carnival Corp.’s Seabourn brand, have operated Antarctic expedition ships for many seasons. Silversea plans to add a second cruise ship to its Antarctic itineraries next year, expanding to a dozen voyages from seven this year. A less-expensive Seabourn itinerary starts at nearly $16,000 per person, while Silversea prices are slightly higher. The most opulent suites can top $40,000 per person for voyages of three weeks and longer.
A third, Scenic Tours, which specializes in upscale European river boat trips, is building a 228-passenger luxury yacht to launch in August 2018, with Antarctica a key destination. The Scenic Eclipse will carry two helicopters to fly guests inland from the coast, plus a seven-seat submarine. Additionally, Norwegian tour operator Hurtigruten Group ASA plans to triple the number of berths sailing in Antarctica this year by adding a second ship, the MS Midnatsol, to the region.
For travelers with means, Antarctica has become the ultimate destination, travel professionals say. No other spot holds the same allure of geographical isolation, exoticism, and, naturally, bragging rights. What’s more, many travelers have been almost everywhere else.
In recent years, the affluent segment of the market has migrated to “more bucket list, really off-the-beaten path, soft-adventure type of travel,” said John Delaney, Seabourn’s, senior vice president of global marketing and sales. “Their priorities changed. People just feel that travel is a bigger priority now. It’s less about material goods and more about experiences.”