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Tourists ski the last degree to South Pole.
Photo Credit: BC Alexander/ALE
Three clients with Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions ski the last degree to the South Pole, a journey of 60 miles. The company supports most of the visitors to the Pole, as well as other overland expeditions, such as the ascent of Vinson Massif, Antarctica's highest mountain.

Tourism surge

“What we’re seeing is not only an increase in tourism but a change in what’s coming,” said Watson, who has worked at the South Pole during 10 of the last 12 years. Instead of the grand adventurers who haul sleds hundreds of kilometers from the coast, she said, many visitors are less experienced, skiing the final 60 miles, or last degree, to the South Pole.

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More than 46,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the 2007-08 season, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) External Non-U.S. government site, most of them arriving by ship to the Antarctic Peninsula from the tip of South America. The USAP’s Palmer Station External U.S. government site on the peninsula receives far more visitors, more than 1,500 last year, based on statistics from IAATO. McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, the largest of the stations, recorded only 133 visitors from one tourist ship.

The surge in Antarctic tourism in recent years has been well documented. The reasons behind the increase are manifold, from the success of movies like “March of the Penguins” to renewed interest in the polar regions and their prominence in climate change. The ongoing International Polar Year External U.S. government site, a two-year science campaign by dozens of countries to explore the Arctic and Antarctic, has also produced quite a few news headlines.

“There’s this renewed interest in polar regions,” Marty said. “We’re seeing that more and more books are being written about the exploration of polar regions. The used books stores are finding it hard to maintain stocks of classics.”

Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) External Non-U.S. government site, a tour company based in Salt Lake City, offers a number of tour packages, including direct flights to the South Pole and “Ski the Last Degree” External Non-U.S. government site adventures, as well as longer expeditions. David Rootes, one of the company’s directors, said in a phone interview, “I suppose we’re benefiting from that general worldwide increase in people doing more tourism … especially tourism to more unusual and extreme destinations.”

ALE until recently had been the only tour operator offering transportation to Pole, working out of the Patriot Hills camp in West Antarctica, with flights originating in Punta Arenas, Chile. A second company, Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI) External Non-U.S. government site, now offers similar packages, but flies out Cape Town and operates from a Russian research station in East Antarctica.

Partiot Hills, West Antarctica
Photo Credit: BC Alexander/ALE
Aerial view of Patriot Hills field camp.

The Patriot Hills camp External Non-U.S. government site can accommodate up to 100 people, though not all are Pole-bound. Many sign up for the ascent up Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s tallest mountain and a necessary feat for those on the Seven Summits circuit to climb the world’s highest peaks on all seven continents.

The only land-based operation that is a member of IAATO, ALE reported 260 clients participated in various multi-day expeditions on the continent during 2007-08. Of that number, ALE supported 92 tourists to the South Pole, 50 of them doing the “Ski the Last Degree” or fly-in trip.

The South Pole trips aren’t cheap. It will cost $46,500 in 2009 to “Ski the Last Degree,” while a seven-day trip, including a flight and four-hour visit to the Pole, will set you back $37,850 for 2009. All four of this year’s fly-in packages from ALE are already fully booked.

Changing times

In the not-too-distant past, the station manager or someone like Marty would greet the visitors, provide a short overview of the station, and then give a brief tour of the facilities. Now, with the tempo of operations at the new station and its demand on Marty and others, additional volunteers sometimes have to greet the visitors

Marty noted many tourists are inquisitive and well versed in polar history and science, keeping the greeters on their toes.

“The program is changing and growing so fast that even some of us that are representatives are caught off guard with a question that we truly can’t answer,” he said. “It’s a far more detailed plethora of questions that we are receiving from the tourists than ever before.”

Rootes said many of the tourists are particularly interested in climate change issues. He said that’s a positive aspect of the new tourism — an opportunity to educate. “We get the chance on the ground to show them what’s happening. … You can really drive home some of these issues. Hopefully the stations benefit from it, too. They’re coming in contact with some of the people helping fund their science.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs