Ship-Based Tourism

Adventure cruises are currently the most active sector of the Antarctic tourism industry. Tourists travel, eat and sleep on board a ship and are normally landed by inflatable boats (helicopters are occasionally used) at a range of sites, usually for a few hours at a time. Two to three landings are typically made each day at different locations in some instances provided the weather is suitable. This form of activity is now well-established, although there is a growing trend, which commenced in the mid-1990s to provide such 'add-ons' as sea kayaking, scuba diving, overnight stays ashore, and brief mountaineering sojourns.

The focus of ship-based activities in the Peninsula area is due to the short sea distances involved from southern South America, the relative abundance of wildlife and spectacular scenery, and the concentration of scientific stations. Typically it only takes two days to travel from the ports of Ushuaia (Argentina), or Punta Arenas (Chile), to the north-western part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Both those 'gateway' cities have frequent, modern jet aircraft, connections to international air networks, therefore travel to them from anywhere in the world is relatively straight forward. Increasingly, in recent years the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) just east of southern South American have become a significant gateway port following improvements to the airport there. As well as the north-west Peninsula, voyages are made to islands such as South Georgia, the South Orkney and South Shetland Island areas, and occasionally into the Weddell Sea.

In contrast to the Peninsula, visits to the Ross Sea and East Antarctic regions are much more limited, primarily because of the greater distances from gateway ports and the sea ice conditions normally involved. The majority of voyages to the Ross Sea are from New Zealand (Bluff or Lyttleton), and to a lesser extent Australia (Hobart); while the limited number of voyages made so far to East Antarctic originate from southern Africa, or the western part of Australia (Perth, Fremantle).  Voyages conducted in both those regions make use of visits to sub-Antarctic islands on the way southwards and northwards to 'break' the long sea journey. These islands include for the Ross Sea, Antipodes, Auckland, Bounty, Campbell and Macquarie Islands south and south-west of New Zealand, and for East Antarctica the islands of Crozet, Heard and McDonald, and Kerguelen in the south Indian Ocean area.

The prices of ship-based tours vary. Tickets for the least expensive cabins range from around US $4,000 for a 9-10 day voyage in the Peninsula area (although to that must be added air fares to Ushuaia or Punta Arenas), to US $11,000 for a voyage to the Ross Sea from Australia or New Zealand (air fares to departure ports are additional), and US $30,000 for a two month full Antarctic circumnavigation (which has only occurred once to date). 

Since the improved availability of shipping and consequential sharp increase in tourist numbers in the early 1990, the ship-based sector continues to grow steadily. Industry predictions in 1998 estimates that by 2003 some 14,000 people will visit the Antarctic continent, the majority of them by ship.