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Who Governs Antarctica: Tourism and History

10 min read

A brief history of Antarctica

Who governs Antarctica? Does anyone in fact oversee or “own” the vast 7th Continent? To grapple with this question of who governs Antarctica, it’s best if we start by providing some context of the history of Antarctica exploration—which preceded, of course, the advent of Antarctica tourism.

Let’s begin with a brief history of Antarctica.


South Pole after fierce competition from Britain's Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived 35 days after Amundsen
In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to reach the South Pole after fierce competition from Britain's Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived 35 days after Amundsen. Credit: AdobeStock

In 1773, Captain James Cook crossed what’s known as the Antarctic Circle, though it wasn’t for another 50 years that a Russian by the name of Fabian von Bellingshausen found proof that the continent of Antarctica really did exist when he sighted snow-covered land on an expedition. A year later, American John Davis—who was more interested in hunting the resident seal population—was apparently the first to make landfall.

Then in the 1840s Sir James Clark Ross (of the Ross Ice Shelf and Ross Sea) set out on the first major exploration of the continent. While there clearly isn’t room to mention every adventurous soul who played a role in the exploration of the Antarctic, Ross is definitely one of the names that needs to be mentioned even in a brief history of Antarctica. His name graces numerous landmarks and water bodies in the Antarctic.

The early 1900s bore witness to frantic Antarctic exploration. In 1901, two British explorers, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton (two other names that figure prominently in a brief history of Antarctica), attempted—without success—to reach the South Pole on the Discovery Expedition.

Shackleton tried again eight years later and made it within 112 miles of the pole—surpassing the efforts of other earlier explorers.

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton (second from left) and three members of his brave crew from   legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.
Ernest Shackleton (second from left) was one of the central figures in what is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

Shackleton’s achievement inspired others who wanted to be the first to reach the South Pole. Much has been written about the rivalry between Scott and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The latter and his expedition team became the first to reach the South Pole, in December 1911. Scott and his remaining crew followed 35 days later. (That would have stung the man’s pride!) 

Of the many explorers who launched expeditions to the Antarctic, one of the most chronicled is Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose adventures, failures and exploits are well-documented.  In fact, Quark Expeditions is honoring the life and legacy of Ernest Shackleton with a special voyage in late 2021/early 2022, Celebrating Shackleton: Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.

Granted, this being a brief history of Antarctica, there are countless others who contributed to exploration in the southern Polar Region. For a Who’s Who in Antarctic Exploration, read 10 Most Famous and Intriguing Polar Explorers. An important historical point: while women were often rebuffed in their efforts to joint expeditions and scientific explorations, many  indeed left their mark on Antarctic history. Here are 5 books about women in Antarctica.

The signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 signalled to the world that no one country owned the Antarctic.
The signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 signalled to the world that no one country owned the Antarctic. Photo: AdobeStock

So who governs Antarctica?

After all that rivalry and competition between various countries, one might ask: So, at the end of the day, who governs Antarctica? Of all the nations and political powers who tried to stake their country’s territorial claims to Antarctica, didn’t someone come out as victor? The answer is, no. 

Antarctica doesn't belong to anyone. There is no single country that owns Antarctica. Instead, Antarctica is governed by a group of nations in a one-of-a-kind international partnership called The Antarctic Treaty, which was first signed by representatives from seven countries on December 1, 1959.

Upon the signing of that agreement, it was determined that the continent of Antarctica would be devoted to “peace and science.” An international partnership dedicated to the wellbeing of the southern Polar Region. You could say that’s who governs Antarctica, although not in the traditional sense. 

The Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961 and included some hard-and-fast rules, such as the banning of military activity and no prospecting for minerals.  

And because Antarctica isn’t governed by one country, visitors don’t require a visa to Antarctica. However, travelers beware: You may need a visa depending on what countries you pass through in order to join a polar expedition to Antarctica.

They would need a visa for the countries they  transit as they travel to and from Antarctica, such as Chile, Brazil and Argentina. For instance, many polar expeditions to Antarctica depart by ship from Ushuaia, Argentina.

Visitors would need to refer to the visa requirements of their own country to determine if a visa is required for admittance to Argentina.  When in doubt, ask your Polar Travel Advisor, who are always happy to explain.

History of tourism in Antarctica

Many people are curious about the history of Antarctica tourism. It’s been widely written that Chile and Argentina played a significant role in the history of tourism in Antarctica. Records show that in the late 1950s ships from Chile and Argentina carried a few hundred paying passengers to the South Shetland Islands.

These weren’t necessarily explorers but people driven out of curiosity and interest in unknown destinations. One of the first tourist expeditions to Antarctica was in 1966, led by a Swedish-American aboard an Argentine vessel. Again, that multicultural, multinational aspect of polar travel surfaces!

Not long after, enthusiasts started taking sightseeing flights over parts of Antarctica, but most visitors who set foot on the Antarctic continent these days arrive by ice-worthy expedition vessels, which are small enough to navigate fjords and reach places larger vessels cannot. 

Quark Expeditions, which has been traveling to the Polar Regions for over 30 years, has the most diverse fleet of small polar vessels in the expedition tourist industry. Quark Expeditions has played a significant role in the history Antarctica tourism.

In 1996, Quark Expeditions brought commercial passengers on a circumnavigation of Antarctica, the first-ever voyage of its kind. In 2003, Quark Expeditions passengers became the first humans to witness a total solar eclipse in Antarctica. (Yes, Antarctica tourism appeals to umbraphiles and eclipse-chasers!) In 2004, Quark Expeditions became the first operator to confirm the Emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill.

The march of emperor penguins at Snow Hill Island, Antarctica.
Emperor penguins, antarctic, life

Today, Quark Expeditions continues to be front and centre in the history of tourism in Antarctica. On Quark Expeditions’ newest ship Ultramarine, which is equipped with two twin-engine helicopters and 20 quick-deploy Zodiacs, guests can choose from the most robust portfolio of off-ship activities in the industry (including alpine heli-trekking, flightseeing, hiking).

Clearly, the next chapter in the history of Antarctica tourism focuses on immersive polar experiences.

Who regulates tourism in Antarctica?

Who regulates tourism in Antarctica? Since no one country “owns” Antarctica, it can be misleading to ask “who regulates Antarctica tourism?” 

The tourism industry in Antarctica is for the most part managed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which was founded in 1991 by seven private tour operators. Quark Expeditions has long been an active member of IAATO and fully embraces the guidelines set out by the organization.

IAATO is a voluntary organization which sets industry standards that will protect Antarctica. IAATO passes policies, procedures and guidelines through a democratic vote among consultative parties – and is known for going over and beyond the minimum requirements necessary to protect the Antarctic landscape and wildlife.

As part of the organization’s mission, IAATO strives to:

  • Advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica
  • Operate within the parameters of the Antarctic Treaty System, along with IMO Conventions and similar international and national laws and agreements
  • Have no more than a minor or transitory impact on the Antarctic environment
  • Foster continued cooperation among its members
  • Provide a forum for the international private-sector travel industry to share their expertise, opinions, and best practices
  • Create a corps of ambassadors for the continued protection of Antarctica by providing the opportunity to experience the continent firsthand
  • Support science in Antarctica through cooperation with National Antarctic Programs, including logistical support and Antarctic research
  • Foster cooperation between private-sector travel and the international science community in the Antarctic
  • Ensure members employ the best qualified staff and field personnel through continued training and education
  • Encourage and develop international acceptance of evaluation, certification and accreditation programs for Antarctic personnel

Adhering to the guidelines set out by IAATO in the Antarctic, and AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) has been crucial in the development of Quark Expeditions’ Polar Promise, its industry-leading comprehensive sustainability policy.

Quark Expeditions has a strong history of being profoundly committed to sustainable Antarctica tourism. In 2017, Quark Expeditions all but eliminated single use plastics by providing guests with reusable water bottles, and outfitting cabins with refillable soap and shampoo dispensers.

At the same time, Quark Expeditions bar and restaurant staff started supplying straws only on request. The result: During a 131-day period on Ocean Endeavour, out of 2189 guests, only 35 straws were requested. Additionally, by eliminating the unnecessary plastic packaging from supplied parkas, Quark Expeditions will eliminate nearly 10,000 plastic bags. 

In the first half of the Antarctic 2019 season alone, Quark Expeditions diverted 270 cubic meters (about the size of 2 ½ humpback whales) of plastic, paper and glass as part of the SeaGreen initiative. Quark Expeditions is one of 22 founding cruise operators in the SeaGreen recycling pilot program. 

Quark Expeditions has worked with and contributed to the South Georgia Heritage Trust since 2011 to deliver a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project to eradicate millions of introduced rodents that were consuming the eggs and chicks of seabirds and endemic birds of South Georgia. The concepts of sustainability and Antarctic tourism do indeed coexist.

Some Interesting facts about tourism in Antarctica 

  • When you journey to Antarctica, you'll experience the midnight sun. There are months when the sun never sets south of the Antarctic Circle. You can take your favorite book outside and read at midnight!
  • Antarctica is the windiest continent in the world. Winds can sometimes reach up to 200 mph (320 km/hour).
  • Antarctica—which has no permanent population—is bigger than Europe. In fact, in terms of physical area, it’s the fifth-largest continent.
  • The highest elevation point on Antarctica is the Vinson Massif at 16,362 feet (4,987 meters).
  • Antarctica is home to Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on the planet 
  • In January 1979, an Argentinian baby, Emile Marco Palma, became the first child born on the southernmost continent. 
  • In 2012, British explorer and meteorologist Felicity Aston became the first person in history to ski across Antarctica powered only by her arms and legs! She skied 1,084 miles (1,744 kilometers) in 59 days.
Quark Expeditions' - Antarctic Express: Fly the Drake

Can you fly into Antarctica?

Those who are short on time, or prefer not to cross the iconic Drake Passage by ship, often ask: Can you fly into Antarctica rather than going by polar ship across the Southern Ocean and the Drake Passage?

While most expeditions to Antarctica are by boat, there are excellent options for those who wish to fly across the Drake Passage and join their vessel, which is waiting for them in Antarctica. The common industry term is for this option is called Fly/Cruise, whereby you fly (from the bottom of South America) across the 800-km Drake Passage and land on King George Island, where you’ll then continue your incredible polar voyage by ship. 

So, in answer to your question, can you fly into Antarctica: Of course, yes! One such itinerary that enables you to fly into Antarctica is Antarctic Express: Fly The Drake.

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