Visitors to Antarctica – There and Back the Hard Way

(Click here for a PDF version of the timeline)

The above timeline illustrates that the frozen southern continent had captured humans’ imaginations since the days of the early explorers – but by the 1970s, how many “tourists” had experienced the privilege of travelling deep down under?

The collection of statistics for early tourism in Antarctica is far from comprehensive. Prominent researchers in the field have stated:

  • “A problem with history of polar tourism is a scarcity of records from many operations, ancient and modern… The experience of the earliest attempt to summarise details was that information was elusive, scattered, and sometimes difficult to confirm.” 1
  • “Accurate data on the number of tourists that have visited Antarctica are difficult to obtain because of non-uniform reporting procedures… Additionally, a ship’s design capacity may not reflect the actual number of passengers carried.” 2
  • “The statistics for the 1970s are scattered and also sparse because tourism on a large scale had not yet developed.” 3

Despite these difficulties, researchers do know that the majority of Antarctic tourism occurred in the coastal areas of the Antarctic Peninsula and peri-Antarctic Islands. Voyages to McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea were conducted only occasionally in the 1970s and 1980s (so this made the Antarctic overflights even more special). 4 The best estimates of seaborne tourist numbers are summarised in the table below.

Seaborne Tourists to Antarctica, Austral Summers of 1957-1980

 

Year

Tourists

Year

Tourists

1957/58

194

1969/70

972

1958/59

----

1970/71

943

1959/60

----

1971/72

984

1960/61

----

1972/73

1175

1961/62

----

1973/74

1876

1962/63

----

1974/75

3644

1963/64

----

1975/76

1890

1964/65

----

1976/77

1068

1965/66

58

1977/78

845

1966/67

94

1978/79

1048

1967/68

147

1979/80

855

1968/69

1312

TOTAL

17,105

 

Source: Polar Research Board, Committee on Antarctic Policy and Science, 1993.
Science and Stewardship in the Antarctic, US National Research Council, Appendix A, p. 89

A typical Antarctic experience for these travellers included “…scenic cruising and visits to wildlife sites, scientific research stations, and historic sites and huts,” and perhaps a spot of whale watching.5 All of these pursuits required at least some exposure to the entirely inhospitable Antarctic environment.