About the IAATO treaty - How is tourism in the ice continent regulated, and when is the best time to visit Antarctica?



It is more important than ever to be extremely careful and mindful when traveling in Antarctica, the last great wilderness. Plants and wildlife in the Antarctic have specifically adapted to extreme conditions, so their tolerance to changes in the environment is extremely narrow. They are more vulnerable at certain times of year than others, for example during the breeding or molting season, so there are restrictions on when you can visit certain places and rules on sustainable behavior. Read on to find out what these special regulations are, how they came about, and consequently the best time to visit Antarctica.

The unique conditions of the ice continent have led countless scientists to conduct studies in the region. The excellent air quality provides background figures for studies on global greenhouse gasses and heavy metal concentrations, for example, and glacial ice provides a detailed historical record of climate conditions. In 1950, 12 different countries had research associates stationed in and around Antarctica, a continent which is not owned or governed by any one nation. Although eight countries have staked their territorial claims on sections of the ice continent, these are not officially recognized and sometimes overlap, so there is a lack of clarity about responsibilities. For this reason, in 1959 international governance was set up through the Antarctic Treaty. Today, the 12 original parties to the treaty have expanded to become 56 countries, representing about two-thirds of the global population. Of these, 28 countries have Consultative Party status due to their extensive research activities, meaning they can actively participate in drafting and adopting international regulations.

Among other things, the Treaty states that Antarctica is to be used for peaceful purposes only, that scientists should continue to be free to investigate and cooperate with each other, and that scientific observations and results from studies in Antarctica are to be freely shared.

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The Antarctic tourism industry is largely self-regulated through the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). This operates within the Antarctic Treaty system, which comprises the Antarctic Treaty, International Maritime Organization (IMO) conventions and other international laws and agreements designed to promote safe and responsible travel to the region, minimizing the impact on the environment and wildlife. Travel to polar regions per se is considered positive under the right conditions, because visitors then return to their home countries as ambassadors for the conservation of these precious resources. Thus, IAATO aims to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic”. Founded in 1991 by seven companies, there are now more than 100 members.

 The signatories to the Arctic Treaty hold an annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). In 1991, an adjunct to the Antarctic Treaty was signed, the Protocol on Environmental Protection. This prohibits any exploitation of natural resources and regulates assessment of the environmental impact of research and tourist activities in the region.

As an advocate of safe, environmentally responsible Antarctic travel, IAATO has been taking part in the ATCMs as an invited Expert since 1994, offering expert advice on tourism-related issues in managing human activity in Antarctica. IAATO also submits Information Papers to the ATCM, including reports on member activities and the latest visitor numbers.


In 2011, the ATCM went on to adopt binding General Guidelines for Visitors to the Antarctic, which aim to ensure that visits to the most important landing sites do not adversely affect the Antarctic environment, its scientific or aesthetic values.

Each party to the Antarctic Treaty and its Environment Protocol creates laws in their own countries obliging their citizens to comply with the guidelines. Visitors to Antarctica must obtain the necessary permits in advance from the relevant Competent Authority of each Antarctic Treaty Party. In practical terms, these permits are usually obtained by the tour operator on behalf of their passengers or for the expedition ship in question. The IAATO FAQ states that: “All human activities, whether for science or tourism, have to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment by a relevant Competent Authority/government agency. Critically, IAATO Member operators have agreed that their activities must have less than a minor or transitory impact on the environment. They submit permit applications annually to their Competent Authority/government agency and, if their planned activities meet all criteria, they are authorized and a permit granted”.


Further agreements have been made on the conservation of seals and living resources, and environmental protection in general. At present, for example, there is a complete ban on the recreational use of drones in Antarctica, subject to review each May to consider any technological advances.

The Protocol prohibits the touching of penguins, seals, whales and other species in the Antarctic, and any activity that could be detrimental to flora and fauna, including noise, trampling, and getting too close. There are also strict protocols on not introducing anything to the continent, nor taking anything away (apart from your rubbish)!

Detailed studies have shown that penguins leave their nests for several minutes if a human comes within 5 m (16 ft) of them, during which they are stressed, and the eggs cool significantly. Seal cows stop lactating when disturbed, and if this occurs several times when the pup is very young, they can be underweight when they take to the sea, which can have fatal consequences.


Antarctic plants have a very short growing season and live in precarious conditions, so are extremely vulnerable to external influences. When crushed underfoot, they do not easily recover. Lichens, for example, grow extremely slowly, just 0.01–0.1 mm annually.  Sadly, a boot print could thus still be visible a hundred years later. For this reason, it is extremely important to stick to the designated trails, and an IAATO-compliant tour operator will only use designated flight corridors and landing sites to minimize disturbances to wildlife.


When is the best time to visit Antarctica?

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Antarctic visits generally concentrate on ice-free coastal zones, such as the Antarctic Peninsula, over the five-month period from November to March.

The best time to visit Antarctica depends on what you would most like to do or see. Weddel and Southern elephant seal pups, for example, are born in October and November. Bird colonies must not be approached during the breeding season from September to May, and penguins also undergo a catastrophic molt lasting three or four weeks, starting in about February for the chicks and March for the adults. Penguins tend to lay their eggs in the early spring (November/December), so January or thereabouts is the best time to view their young—from a respectable distance. The breeding season is much longer for King penguins in South Georgia, and their young can be seen throughout the season. 


Albatrosses can also be witnessed at any time in the summer. The largest breed, the Wandering albatross, fledges in November and December. Antarctic petrels nest on high cliffs and icebergs in October and November, and each pair’s single egg hatches in mid-January, fledging in early March. Arguably the best time to see whales in great abundance is the migration season in February and March. 


When planning your Antarctic adventure, pick a reputable tour operator which abides by the strict IAATO guidelines and obliges its passengers to do likewise. How can you find out if a tour operator is a member of IAATO? Polartours is synonymous with sustainable travelAnd by choosing us, you might just snag an incredible last-minute deal.

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