Antarctic tourism booming, but at a cost

Antarctic tourism is booming and visitor numbers are higher than ever seen before, with the original huts from the Heroic Era proving to be a growing attraction.

In the late 1980s around 2000 tourists visited the continent, rocketing up to 44,000 last year.

Within the region are a number of historic huts. One drawcard is Scott's Hut - home of explorer Robert Falcon Scott from 1910 to 1912, before his ultimately fatal mission to the South Pole.

"A lot of people have read those amazing stories and they want to go there and see for themselves," Rodney Russ, founder of Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions, told Newshub.

But the trips come at a premium; 30-day expeditions, travelling from New Zealand through the Drake Passage, start at $25,000.

Robert Falcon Scott's Hut is a common tourist attraction.
Robert Falcon Scott's Hut is a common tourist attraction. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

"It is the historic gateway, it's the most difficult gateway too... It's not for everybody," Mr Russ said.

"It is a lot of money, but it's an amazing destination too."

The growing popularity has seen a change in how people are travelling too. It is a regular bucket-list tourist destination and demand for cruises is increasing. About 17 percent of tourists to Antarctica are content to sit on the ship and not step foot onto the ice.

As the trade grows, so too have concerns about how to protect the vast continent - including whether tourist numbers should be limited, a subject of debate within the scientific community.

But Mr Russ rejected that, saying tourism has its place too.

"The treaty says it's set aside for peace and science, tourism is peaceful," he said.

Mt Erebus, as seen from the ice.
Mt Erebus, as seen from the ice. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

June, Lady Hillary, widow of Antarctic explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, and patron of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, agreed.

"I think that it is good for people to see it because it is our planet, and it's a great experience," she told Newshub.

"But it's just gently, gently, with everything, I think. But it is a great adventure. You just have to leave no mark."

The rule to 'leave no mark' is fiercely protected in the Ross Sea. All travel from New Zealand has to be approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including tourism.

The mantra is to "take only pictures, leave only footprints", in an attempt to conserve the last continent for the future. Anyone who breaks the rules of their permit could be jailed for up to a year, or fined up to $100,000.

An MFAT spokesperson told Newshub first-time offenders would likely only get a warning.

The hut has been preserved exactly how Scott and his team left it - dead penguins and all.
The hut has been preserved exactly how Scott and his team left it - dead penguins and all. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

"New Zealand is the only country that requires a government observer on board all tourist vessels that depart New Zealand or are permitted by New  Zealand," they said.

"The role of the National Representative is to observe and report back to the MFAT on the operator's compliance with the appropriate permits and legal requirements."

While travel to the Ross Sea region makes up only 0.4 percent of all Antarctic tourism, Scott and Shackleton's huts are proving to be attractive lures.

Mr Russ, the only operator granted a permit by MFAT last year, said he's never had an issue with tourists.

"We're passionate about it. We're not going to destroy what we take people down there for," he said.

Lady Hillary, who went to Antarctica on several cruises with Sir Ed, remembered it as a "spectacular" experience she hopes others can enjoy.

"If people want to go down to the Antarctic and they're really fascinated by it, they should definitely go, I think. And children too."