“I love telling people that Antarctica will be the trip of their lifetime, and they kind of roll their eyes. And then they come back, and they say, ‘You were absolutely right. Antarctica wasn’t just the seventh continent—it was the most amazing experience of my life.’”
James B. McClintock, professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has experienced the wonder of the White Continent repeatedly over the past 30 years, on more than 15 research expeditions. But even after three-month stints on the dramatic tundra, at bases like the McMurdo and Palmer stations, McClintock struggles to put the magic of Antarctica into words. It’s the unimaginable scale of the landscape. The huddles of penguins, with no innate fear of humans—it’s ethereal, otherworldly, and yet none of that is enough to describe just how special Antarctica is.
McClintock is far from the only one who feels its pull. Despite the unattainable allure the destination has held for much of the world, Antarctica has, in recent years, hit the mainstream. Travel magazines like ours house glossy spreads of the imposing blue-and-white landscape. Instagram is flooded with reels and photo dumps of wide-eyed civilians getting their first glimpse of ‘The Ice,’ and wading ashore in borrowed boots. Youtube’s biggest content creators are posting their dispatches (a video from the tireless Mr. Beast of his landing, shared last month, has nearly 100 million views). Everyone, it seems, is going to Antarctica.
Okay, maybe not everyone. The final count of visitors to Antarctica during the 2021-2022 tourism season—Antarctica’s austral summer, from October to March—was 23,527 according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). (I was one of those travelers.) That number represents an infinitesimal 0.00029 percent of the world’s population. And it’s notably less than pre-pandemic figures reported by IAATO, with nearly 75,000 travelers landing on Antarctica in the 2019-2020 season. That pre-pandemic number, though, was the greatest in an overall steady rise from 1991 when IAATO was formed—a year in which a total 6,400 visitors were reported—only stilted by world events like the 2008 financial crisis and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic (just two private yachts are said to have made the journey during the 2020-2021 season). The vast majority of this travel is done by cruise ship.
Travel specialists say, that even as tourism rebounds after the pandemic, interest in Antarctica cruising is at an all-time high—and they expect bookings to continue to rise. “Interest in Antarctic cruising has been increasing year over year for the past decade,” says Ashton Palmer, president of Expedition Trips. “We have seen a steady increase as more companies operate trips to Antarctica, and therefore do more marketing to raise awareness—and the desire to travel farther and to more remote locations has become ever more popular.”
Mary Jean Tully, who books guests on luxury lines like Seabourn has seen the same pattern off the back of growing, and ever-more-fabulous industry offerings. “The curiosity has been there for a while, however with more new luxury expedition ships entering the marketplace, the inquiries and bookings we’re receiving are amazing. There is so much interest, now more than ever.” Just this season, Seabourn Cruise Line, Atlas Ocean Voyages, and Silversea Cruises have all put new expedition ships in Antarctic waters (the Seabourn Venture, Atlas World Traveller, and Silversea’s Silver Endeavor, respectively).
Noah Brodsky, the chief commercial officer at Lindblad Expeditions—the company started by Lars Eric Lindblad, who lead the first civilian expedition to the continent in 1966—says the outfitter had their biggest-ever booking day for Antarctica sailings at the start of January 2023, with reservations up 14 percent over their previous record. “We have an unprecedented 20 Antarctica departures in the 2023-2024 season, and five of them are already full,” Brodsky says. He expects 2023 to be a “record-breaking year” for bookings.
Many in the industry attribute this swelling curiosity to COVID-19, even if Antarctica travel was of growing interest prior. “After the pandemic, many people decided to finally tackle their bucket lists,” says biologist Dr. Verena Meraldi, chief scientist for Hurtigruten Expeditions.
Many, like Palmer, hear from guests who have been to every other continent and are ready for number seven. The tick of climate change’s clock adds an undeniable pressure. “Climate change and fear of its effects on these regions has heightened the urgency—travelers are prioritizing the destination now, before it is too late,” says Torstein Gaustad, an expedition leader on Hurtigruten’s hybrid-powered MS Fridtjof Nansen.