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Tourism in the Polar Regions

3 Tourism in the Polar Regions: Facts, Trends and Impacts

This section describes how polar tourism grew to become a mature and highly diversified industry in both Polar Regions; the characteristics of its current operations; and prominent factors that will affect its future.  This information is essential for understanding tourism’s present and future impacts on the Polar Regions. 

Evaluating tourism impacts, both beneficial and otherwise, requires knowledge of total numbers as well as where, when, and how tourists cause impacts. For example, the many thousand cruise-ship passengers who passively view the Arctic from offshore, and occasionally disembark to visit land based souvenir shops, affect the region in ways that differ from the smaller numbers actively engaged in ecotourism or wilderness recreations activities such as river rafting, mountaineering, and sport fishing. By accurately identifying the full array of tourist activities and their behavioral patterns, then placing that information within the context of their natural and human resource settings, we can begin to understand key relationships.

Nearly Two Centuries of Arctic Tourism

The Arctic has attracted tourists since the early 1800’s. The earliest Arctic tourists 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). 

Mass tourism in the Arctic has thrived 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, 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).

During the past two centuries numerous advances in transport technologies have contributed to the steady growth of Arctic tourism.  At the present time, advanced ship technologies together with improved marine charts and navigational aids have allowed cruise ship travel to increase exponentially.  Diesel locomotives, four wheel drive and tracked vehicles further opened access to vast regions of the Arctic (Rand McNally, 1922).  And, most importantly, air transport in all of its forms, provides immediate travel to the Arctic.  Collectively, these improved transport technologies not only added numbers of tourists, but also expanded the seasonal and geographical reach of Arctic tourism (Armstrong, 1972, 1991; Glines, 1964; Van Doren, 1993). 

Antarctic Tourism

Antarctic tourism began in 1957-59 with four visits by Argentinean and Chilean naval transports, which accommodated tourists whose fares helped to pay costs of servicing the national expeditions (Reich, 1980). Antarctica received extensive international publicity from the explorations led by Richard Byrd, Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary.

Entrepreneurial tour operators recognized the commercial value of feasible access and positive international publicity.  In 1966 Lars Eric Lindblad began expedition cruising to the Antarctic and initiated the use of zodiacs to land passengers at diverse sites.   As a result of the success of the Lindblad model, government affiliated voyages were quickly superseded by dedicated cruises in small ‘expedition’ ships carrying 50-120 passengers. For many years this type of travel dominated the trade. Increasing numbers of expedition ships are transporting larger numbers of passengers, and making more landings at several hundred sites.  The first larger cruise ship to enter the field, Ocean Princess in 1990-93, had a capacity of 480 passengers, but carried only 250-400 on its annual Antarctic voyages. The most recent development has been the advent from 2000 of liners carrying between 800 and 3,700 passengers, including crew members.

Over the last decades, tourism activities have expanded tremendously with the number of ship-borne tourists increasing by 430 % in 14 years and land-based tourists by 757 % in 10 years (IAATO 2007). The tremendous increase of ship-borne tourism and its impacts on the Antarctic environment resulted in the members of the Antarctic Treaty adopting a resolution (May 2007) which recommends the Parties of the Treaty to:

  1. Discourage or decline to authorize tour operators that use vessels carrying more than 500 passengers from making any landings in Antarctica; and
  2. Encourage or require tour operators to:
    1. Coordinate with each other such that not more than one tourist vessel is at a landing site at any one time;
    2. Restrict the number of passengers on shore at any one time to 100 or fewer, unless otherwise specified in applicable ATCM Measures or Resolutions;  and
    3. Maintain a minimum 1:20 guide-to-passenger ratio while ashore, unless otherwise specified in applicable ATCM Measures or Resolutions.

Commercial air transport of tourists to the Antarctic includes both small groups traveling to the continent and larger numbers viewing from overflights.  Adventure Network International (ANI) has been providing flight services to Patriot Hills in the Heritage Range since 1985 and other charter air companies have provided tourist transport between South Africa and Dronning Maud Land, and between Punta Arenas, Chile and King George Island (Swithinbank, 2000).      

Polar Tourism Today – Diverse and Growing

Polar tourism is now a mature industry providing diverse experiences in both Polar Regions.  The polar tourism industry is enticing an increasing clientele with expanding numbers of attractions, recreational activities, international destinations, and visitor accommodations.  And now that regularly scheduled excursion travel is provided to both the Arctic and Antarctic, year-round polar tourism has become a reality.Polar Tourism’s Diverse Markets

Polar tourism is not a single, monolithic industry, but rather a collection of diverse specialty markets that appeal to an equally diverse clientele.  Each of these distinct markets is growing and expanding for an obvious reason – they appeal to tourists who are willing to pay for the unique experiences they offer.  The five highly specialized market segments currently dominating the polar tourism economy are best defined in terms of their primary attractions and the ways in which those attractions are experienced.  This approach to classifying tourist markets explicitly acknowledges tourist expectations, the service delivery methods used to realize those expectations, and the distinct impacts resulting from those activities. The five markets are:

  1. The mass market, comprised of tourists primarily attracted to sightseeing within the pleasurable surroundings of comfortable transport and accommodations.  
  2. The sport fishing and hunting market, with participants who pursue unique fish and game species within a wilderness setting. 
  3. 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.
  4. The adventure tourism market, providing a sense of personal achievement and exhilaration from meeting challenges and potential perils of outdoor sport activities.
  5. 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.

Each market has distinct visitor experiences and economic dimensions, involving different tourists’ motivations, expectations, on-site behavior, and resource uses.  Market segmentation provides a useful framework for understanding polar tourism in terms of the use of natural and cultural resources, economic activity, and visitor behavior.  But obviously, tourists themselves are not constrained by this classification: they participate freely in many types of activities (Snyder and Stonehouse, 2007). 

The enormous geographic scope of the five markets deserves emphasis.  All eight Arctic nations, and their seas and oceans host all five markets, while Antarctica hosts most of them with the exception of the sport fishing and hunting and the culture and heritage markets.  Most of that geography consists of land masses that are true wilderness and oceans with the world’s most severe maritime conditions.  The challenge of managing tourism across those vast lands and seas is well known to the Arctic nations and to those concerned about Antarctic tourism. 

Environmental, Economic, Social and Cultural Impacts of Polar Tourism

Environmental impacts

There are serious concerns that tourism is promoting environmental degradation in the Polar Regions (especially in the Arctic) by putting extra pressures on land, wildlife, water and other basic necessities, and on transportation facilities (GEO 2002 and GEO 2006). According to the Arctic Council Working Group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the main environmental impacts of tourism in the Arctic are the following (CAFF 1997, 1998, 2001):

  • The transport of tourists to the Arctic, in itself, increases the volume of ship and airplane traffic.  In addition to the impacts on climate by long distance air and water traffic, increased ship traffic in these waters could lead to increased risks of groundings and other accidents, the results of which can include oil spills and other environmental consequences.  
  • Many visitors want to see areas of great beauty or richness, such as bird colonies, marine mammal haul-outs, and caribou aggregations. Because there are relatively few places where such sights are accessible and reliable, tourist traffic is often concentrated. Arctic vegetation is typically unable to withstand repeated trampling, and paths of bare ground have appeared in some heavily visited spots. 
  • Helicopters, used sometimes for recreational purposes, are noisy and produce a variety of sounds that are disturbing to seabirds. Helicopters cause panic flights and can lead to egg loss particularly in birds.
  • In the forest-tundra areas of the Arctic, tourism, including sport hunting and fishing, attracts moderate though increasing numbers of visitors. This places additional pressure on the region’s resources, sometimes leading to conflicts between local and visiting hunters. The forest-tundra in general has a low tolerance for trampling. Even the temporary presence of humans often leaves a lasting impact. 
  • Visits to Arctic seabird colonies by tourists are rapidly growing. Currently cruise ships visit or sail by colonies in the low and high Arctic of Canada, west Greenland, Iceland, Norwegian coast and Svalbard, eastern Russia, and the US (Alaska). Colonies chosen for visitation tend to be large and spectacular and usually are home to species such as murres, puffins, kittiwakes, and fulmars. During a colony visit, passengers typically board smaller boats from the larger ships, and cruise by colonies observing the seabirds and taking pictures. Occasionally passengers make landings at suitable colonies and view the seabirds from above or below the cliffs. 
  • Recreational activities, such as boating and fishing, cause local disturbance at bird colonies in several Arctic countries. In the Russian far-east, coastal and lowland species such as ducks, gulls, terns and Spectacled Guillemots are frequently disturbed by visitors. 
  • Garbage, waste, and pollution are significant problems for many tourism operations, especially as decomposition is slow and waste remains visible atop the permafrost in many Arctic areas.

In the Antarctic the most important impact of tourism concerns the disturbance of cetaceans. Certain studies have lent increasing strength to concerns that human activities may be influencing the fitness of these animals. Tourism activities in Antarctica present also a risk to the marine environment (pollution resulting from operations or maritime accident (e.g. grounding)) as well as to terrestrial ecosystems as over 80 % of the tourists land one or more times during their journey (introduction of alien species; disturbance of birds colonies; damage to the vegetative cover (e.g. lichen). In addition, high-risk unsupported (adventure) tourism can potentially impact on national research programmes in terms of search and rescue operations.

The main positive impact of polar tourism, if well done, is its educational value. Arctic and Antarctic visitors are fascinated by the sheer beauty, wilderness and natural phenomena of the polar environment. This can be used to make them not only to ambassadors for the protection of the visited regions, but also supporters of conservation activities and organizations worldwide.

Economic impacts

Growing public and private resource commitments to promote and further develop tourism demonstrate strong intentions to strengthen tourism’s economic role in the Arctic.  Given these circumstances, economic impacts, both positive and negative, include the following:

  • Many Arctic people seeking economic security perceive tourism as a positive means for improving economic stability.  From their perspective, reliance on predictably arriving tourists offers a more stable economic outlook than exhausting finite natural resources to meet the boom and bust needs of world markets.  
  • Arctic communities generally appreciate the economic benefits resulting specifically from the angling, hunting, and nature tourism market because most tourist expenditures remain in the community. Tourists employ local guides, pilots, charter boat captains and crews, outfitters, and suppliers. They use local transport, stay in local accommodations, and eat in local establishments. 
  • Culture and heritage tourism provides critical support for language preservation, the practice of traditional ceremonies, and the perpetuation of ancient customs and art forms. The presence of appropriate and effective interpretation and education methodologies will dramatically impact effectiveness. Additionally, this form of tourism creates a market for art and other native manufactures and services.  
  • The cost of building, operating, and maintaining tourism infrastructure is a huge economic burden for Arctic communities and governments.  Support facilities and services of all types are built and maintained to serve relatively large numbers of persons that exceed the resident population.  Transport facilities, law enforcement, medical services, other emergency services, water and wastewater utilities, and waste collection and disposal incur capital and operating costs, require advanced work force skills, spare parts, and need specialized supplies in order to sustain there functions. Tourism normally occurs for a few months of the year, but the infrastructure must be maintained under adverse conditions for the entire year.  
  • The economic and human costs of providing emergency services deserve special attention.  Highly trained personnel, many of whom are volunteers, risk their lives in search and rescue operations.  Expensive transport and medical equipment and supplies are required to evacuate victims and treat their injuries.  Law enforcement resources must respond to large populations visiting their communities and need specialized equipment to patrol backcountry regions.  Fire suppression service faces similar challenges.  
  • The cost of responding to environmental hazards is included in the budgets of all Arctic nations, but may not be sufficient.  Oil spill containment and recovery, hazardous materials handling and storage, and hazardous waste disposal all represent substantial costs.  Adequate funds and the availability of specialized equipment, trained personnel, and essential supplies may or may not be sufficient to respond to events.    
  • Finally, the question of who benefits economically from large-scale Arctic tourism is a very sensitive issue.  Many of the transport, tour and hotel corporations conducting tourism in the Arctic are headquartered outside the region.  Consequently, much of the money paid by polar tourists to those non-resident corporations escapes the Arctic people.

The continent of Antarctica derives absolutely no economic benefits from tourism, but can suffer environmental and heritage resource costs. Unlike most parts of the world, there are no indigenous people to benefit from tourism in Antarctica and thus tourism is not an alternative to local unsustainable economics activities. This blunt fact is a serious consideration for anyone motivated to propose tourism management practices on the southern continent.  There is no continuous stream of money devoted to tourism management, environmental monitoring, emergency services, waste collection and disposal, the design and implementation of risk minimization or mitigation programmes, or any other “best practices” normally associated with reasonably managed tourism.  Specifically:

  • Aside from the fees collected by the Antarctic Historic Places Trust to maintain heroic era huts in the Ross Sea region, no revenues or fees of any sort are collected from either tour operators or the tourists themselves for the management of Antarctica’s environmental resources. Some scientific stations and heritage sites generate revenues from the sale of souvenirs, but these are neither dedicated to resource management nor sufficient to support tourism management programmes.  
  • As with all who travel to Antarctica, costs are incurred by tour operators for the preparation of environmental impact assessments required by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  Scientific stations incur costs for the assistance they provide in emergency situations such as search and rescue or medical support.  The true costs of emergency response include not only direct expenses for personnel and equipment, but the risk to additional lives and distraction from scientific missions. 
  • To the credit of many tourists who learn about Antarctica’s economic dilemma, generous personal donations have been given in support of environmental research and heritage preservation projects in Antarctica and the sub-polar islands. 

Social impacts

There are serious concerns regarding the negative impacts of a growing tourism industry to the people in the Arctic world.  Social norms, values and unique ways of life are all subjected to impacts from polar tourism.  Tourism impacts affecting polar communities and their people are presented below.

  • The most obvious social impacts result from the number of visitors that temporarily overwhelm the social norms of some Arctic communities during tourist season.  Community institutions such as educational, religious, and civic organizations often experience altered roles and functions when the tourists are in town.  Based on the attitude of the community, this may or may not be a major disruption, but large numbers of tourists relative to local populations always exerts a dominant presence.
  • Social impacts of Arctic tourism can be mitigated by the terms and conditions of collaborative agreements between the tour operators and the local community.  In some instances, tax revenues and special fees can offset local costs.  When tourist seasons are expanded there are greater economies of scale and efficiencies result from the extended use of infrastructure and longer duration of employment and income benefits. 

Cultural impacts

The Arctic environment is not merely a setting in which a rich diversity of Native People live, but rather it encompasses the essential resources upon which the lives and culture depend.  Consequently, any events that endanger those resources place Native People at grave risk.  By their own declarations the most severe threat facing Native People is climate change.  The loss of Arctic sea ice with its attendant effects on wildlife habitat, numbers, and migratory behavior; the transport routes needed to subsist; the duration of seasons; and the condition of fisheries are of critical importance to the cultural and economic well-being of Arctic people.  According to a statement by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former International Chair, Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Pegg, 2004):

“What is at stake here is not just the extinction of animals but the extinction of Inuit as a hunting culture. Climate change in the Arctic is a human issue, a family issue, a community issue, and an issue of cultural survival.”

The cultural impacts described below must be evaluated from that perspective.

  • Large numbers of tourists can produce significant cultural resource impacts.  They further stress increasingly scarce natural resources and that results in a variety of pressures on indigenous subsistence practices and value systems. 
  • Ironically, as traditional indigenous lifestyles succumb to change resulting from climate change, there will be fewer opportunities for tourists to support authentic cultural traditions.  This will affect Arctic culture and economies.
  • In addition to their numbers, the introduction of technologies and tourist service amenities can impact Native People’s desires to maintain traditional lifestyles.   
  • Intrusive, inappropriate visitor behavior violates traditional customs.  Tours that do not include educational practices can generate conflicts that damage both Native People’s quality of life and the tourist experience.  When that happens, both parties lose (Snyder and Stonehouse, 2007).
  • In summary, the ways in which Arctic communities allow their natural and cultural resources to be used affects the character of those communities.  As Arctic communities continue to achieve self determination, they will increasingly decide how their natural and cultural resources will be utilized and this will ultimately determine how those resources are managed.  Arctic communities and Native People must determine how tourism will, or will not, occur and how natural and cultural resources should be used and safeguarded.  They can be aided by good management practices that are relevant to their objectives.   But the final decisions regarding natural and cultural resource uses must be made locally.  Any other solution would be yet another example of intrusion from the “outside”.

The Outlook for Polar Tourism: Reduced “Barriers to Entry”

Polar tourism expands because of a continuous reduction of what economists call “barriers to entry”.  The concept suggests that the extent to which these barriers are increased, reduced, altered, or eliminated directly controls the amount, geographic distribution, seasonal duration, and types of tourism likely to occur (Clawson and Knetsch 1966, Walsh 1986).  Since its inception, the most difficult barriers confronting polar travel include difficulty of access, environmental conditions (both real and perceived), cost of travel, time to travel, and jurisdictional restraints. 

Both human-induced and natural events are making the Polar Regions increasingly accessible.  Vastly improved geographic and hydrographic knowledge; advancements in transport and navigational technologies; more comfortable clothing; more durable recreational equipment; significant reductions in the amount, extent and duration of sea ice; and a relatively more tolerable climate are all contributing to growing access to the Polar Regions.  The cumulative impacts of these events are larger numbers of polar tourists spending more time in more locations. 


Polar tourism was slow to start, but is now a popular and rapidly-growing industry that is expanding in terms of tourists, tour operators, diverse recreational pursuits, geographic scope, and seasons of use.  Arctic economies have seen it evolve from an incidental activity to a vital sector upon which they increasingly rely. This has been particularly true for newly enfranchised indigenous people of the Arctic seeking self-sufficiency, and for gateway cities in the southern hemisphere eager to realize the economic benefits of Antarctic tourism.