“It is one of the most special places on earth,” says Denise Landau, executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).

“It touches everyone who goes there. You can always tell by the look in someone’s eyes if they have been,” adds Stuart Whittington of cruise company Hurtigruten.

Antarctica gives rise to strong emotions in visitors, so much so that, uniquely, the majority of cruise companies have signed up to a voluntary code of conduct. Since tourism took off in the earth’s southernmost continent, the industry has played a crucial role in regulating its activities to protect the environment. It is a hostile environment, with 98% of its land covered by ice, and it is one of the coldest, driest and windiest climates on the planet.

It is also home to a fascinating array of cold-adapted plants and animals, including penguins, seals, mosses and algae, which need to be protected.

In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 countries, prohibiting military activity and mining, and supporting the ecozone. Today, the number of signatories is 45, and all plants and animals in Antarctica are protected. Educating visitors and operators about the sensitivity of the environment is the job of Denise Landau, executive director of IAATO since 1999. She has seen the organisation’s membership rise from 24 to nearly 100 during those years – it now encompasses 95% of cruise companies in the region.

The organisation was formed in 1991 by seven tour operators active in Antarctica, to “advocate, promote and practice environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica”.


IAATO has strict criteria on how many passengers should land, where and when. Most visits on ice-free coastal areas occur between November and March. Supervised visits ashore are limited to three hours, with less than 100 people at a time, and only one to three landings per day are allowed.

One staff member must accompany every 20 passengers, and ships should carry no more than 500 people. Strict waste rules mean the discharge of oil, bulk chemicals or rubbish is prohibited, sewage must be treated biologically, food waste must be processed and not discharged within 12 miles of land, and other waste must be stored on board.

Landau says that while tourism has grown over the years, IAATO has developed extensive procedures to stay ahead of this growth. These include visitor, operator and environmental impact assessments, boot washing and prevention of the introduction of alien species, marine wildlife watching guidelines, ship scheduling, landing procedures and emergency plans.

“All our members are good at following these guidelines,” says Landau. “But it’s like driving on a motorway – the speed limit is 70mph, but are you going to stick to it all the time? No one is perfect, but everybody is trying to do their best. If you look at any of the landing sites in Antarctica, you’ll see very little, if any, sign of cumulative impact.”

Measures to minimise damage include communication between cruise companies through email and telex, and an online landing schedule to ensure visits do not overlap.


“Many governments still want to regulate and manage tourism themselves without industry involvement, and there is little hope that Antarctica will remain protected if that is the case.”

However, there is concern about the small number of cruise companies, including Orient Lines and Discovery, who, despite following their own guidelines, sit outside of IAATO.

“The only way you can work to protect Antarctica is by all the companies working together,” says Landau. “If you stay outside then you encourage others to stay outside and you are not receiving the latest information.” She says the cost of membership is negligible, at only $10 per passenger.

Orient Lines, which runs cruises in Antarctica on the Marco Polo, is not a member of IAATO, but nevertheless stresses that environmental protection is among its highest priorities. A spokesman told WCIR the company has invested heavily in new environmental protection technology and a department devoted to environmental protection. Orient says it has environmental officers on the Marco Polo, and all crew members have special training.

“The environmental policies and technologies onboard the ship are among the most stringent in the industry and exceed existing laws and international conventions,” said a spokesman for the Marco Polo. These include all international, US, state and local port regulations, such as the MARPOL regulations and United States Coast Guard (USCG).

The spokesman added: “In addition, Orient Lines is dedicated to supporting a sustainable future for the destinations it visits.”


At the Antarctica Treaty Meeting this year, member governments adopted IAATO’s operating standards, but only agreed to ‘discourage’ companies from operating outside of them. “Discourage doesn’t mean anything,” says Landau. Currently IAATO can only ask governments to invite companies to join, and the US says it cannot legally require a company to be a member.

On the other hand, the UK government has a more favourable policy. “They are the most proactive, and will not grant some permits unless the company is a member,” says Landau.

In the long term, she believes there needs to be a more formal partnership with governments. “Many governments still want to regulate and manage tourism themselves without industry involvement, and there is little hope that Antarctica will remain protected if that is the case,” she says. “One can’t sit in an office 10,000 miles away from Antarctica and assume that tourism being conducted by operators from around the world will protect the place. There has to be an active and dynamic


Cruise operator and IAATO member Hurtigruten has been operating for more than 100 years along the Norwegian coast and within the Arctic Circle. It took its experience into Antarctica six years ago. “Our long history in Arctic waters has made us polar specialists for many years. As a result, our trips Antarctica are a very natural fit,” says Whittington. “Our smaller ships are quite different from the mainstream cruise lines, being designed to really learn about what is on the outside, such as the magnificent environments we pass through, rather than focusing on traditional onboard entertainment.”

The company operates two ships, MS Fram and MS Nordnorge, whose capacities do not exceed 350 passengers on its five Antarctica cruises. “We limit numbers for environmental reasons,” says Whittington. “We are visiting some of the planet’s most remote and pristine coastlines, and we have a duty to take the environmental impact of our operation very seriously. For better or for worse Antarctica is international territory so it’s very difficult for people to impose laws
and restrictions. We are exceptionally strict in working alongside the IAATO guidelines and ensuring that passengers follow them.”

Hurtigruten has carried out environmental impact assessments on the operations of its ships and prides itself on its experienced crew. The last assessments, in 2005, looked at the activities, routes, number of passengers, and potential impact of the ships’ operations. All waste is kept onboard when in Antarctic waters, the ships carry oil booms to control spillages and rubbish is taken back to mainland South America. Everyone who travels to Antarctica attends a mandatory IAATO briefing, and the company will only land groups of less than 100 passengers at a time.

“I find it very disappointing that there are operators who don’t feel they need to follow the IAATO guidelines,” Whittington says. “Companies need to be sure they have always got Antarctica at the heart of their operations, rather than their commercial interests. The industry needs to work together to minimise its cumulative impact on this unique environment.”