Can Travelling To Antarctica Actually Be Sustainable? – British Vogue

As legend has it, Captain John Davis became the first human to set foot on Antarctica over 200 years ago, in search of seals. The inhospitable continent has never been home to a native human population and for much of history, only a handful of explorers and scientists have lived to tell the tale from the seventh continent.

But, seemingly overnight, Antarctica has become a top travel destination – at least for the ultra rich. On TikTok, #Antarctica is trending with over 4.3 billion views, in part due to the popularity of the Royal Caribbean’s Ultimate World Cruise, which allows you to visit all seven continents in a year. Last year, actor Nina Dobrev and her snowboarder boyfriend Shaun White rang in the new year by sailing to Antarctica on a superyacht, bringing along celeb pals Zoey Deutch, Jared Leto, and Lewis Hamilton.

The most resounding evidence that visiting this remote continent has officially broken into the zeitgeist? When I visited my doctor in January to get medical clearance ahead of my own trip to Antarctica, the nurse told me I was the third person they had seen for the same reason.

Antarctica is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination, with over 100,000 tourists visiting the continent by cruise ship or long-haul flight during its summer months.

Andrew Macdonald

Technically, anyone can visit Antarctica – no passport is needed. It’s not a country, it’s a continent protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which preserves the land for peaceful and scientific use only and ensures that all human activity is carefully managed and regulated. This polar region is roughly twice the size of Australia and 98 per cent covered in ice. It is the largest wilderness on Earth and one of the most protected places on the planet.

But its growing popularity among travellers could put that status under threat. During Antarctica’s summer months (December to March), over 100,000 tourists will visit the continent by cruise ship or long-haul flight. That’s up 40 per cent from pre-pandemic years. With this surge in tourism, the balance between travel and preserving our world’s most remote wilderness is a delicate one.

It’s a balance that polar explorer Patrick Woodhead – who holds multiple world records, including being the first to cross Antarctica from east to west – is keenly aware of. It’s what led him to launch White Desert Antarctica, the world’s only luxury camp operator on the seventh continent (with other operators, you patrol the periphery on a ship), nearly 20 years ago. “It had to be environmentally sound from day one or it wasn’t worth it,” explains Woodhead.

Sophia Li pictured with Emperor Penguins during her visit to Antarctica with White Desert Antarctica.

Andrew Macdonald

That’s the reason why White Desert Antarctica – which specialises in getting clients to the South Pole and to see the Emperor Penguin colony – only accepts 250 clients a season. The company is carbon neutral, using non-fossil-fuel derived aviation fuel (they use the legal maximum blend of 50 per cent, while other airlines are at two per cent), while also offsetting via nature-based solutions like Project Seagrass. Solar energy is used to heat the guest pods in each of its three pop-up camps, which are designed to be completely dismantled at the end of the season, leaving no trace on the landscape. There’s also no single-use plastic on site, with all other waste disposed of responsibly (crucial, as there is no waste system in Antarctica).

Beyond minimising its own environmental impact, the company also supports the scientific and Antarctic community, bringing around 200 scientists every season to its research centres, while sharing other resources such as crevasse mapping.

Woodhead is keen for leaders and decision makers to be transformed by this vast landscape, much like he was. “Tourism done with a very light footprint is really powerful,” he explains. “There’s a direct ripple effect.” Previous guests have included the likes of Prince Harry, members of the Saudi and Jordanian royal families and CEOs – the aim is to make every guest an “Antarctica ambassador” who will share the importance of conserving the planet upon return to home.

Activities included ice climbing and glacier hikes. White Desert Antarctica only takes 250 clients to the continent per season.

Andrew Macdonald

It’s impossible to not feel humbled when face to face with untouched wilderness. During our week-long trip, there was no internet reception, no sunsets and a complete surrender to the stillness and oneness of Mother Nature. The days were filled with a range of activities from ice climbing, glacier hikes and spotting penguins in their natural habitat to visiting the company’s newest camp, Echo, which is located at glacier-lined Henriksen Nunataks. Inspired by space exploration, the location was actually visited by astronaut Buzz Aldrin himself who spoke of Antarctica’s beauty surpassing that of Venus and Mars.

All sense of time and social constructs simply evaporated once we were there. I talked about climate change at length every day with other members of the group and the knowledgeable staff. Whereas in daily life, this topic can be met with resistance, here it was met with deep care: the environmental crisis is always top of mind when one is sitting atop million-year-old ice.

This sense of connection was undeniable, something that I haven’t even experienced at some of the world’s biggest climate conferences, wondering why we were negotiating the future of the planet in fossil-fuel-made concrete structures. “There are no borders here,” Woodhead reiterates. “When you come here, everyone has to work in harmony and be unified for survival. It’s amazing what humans can do if we remember our humanity.”

The travel company uses the maximum percentage of sustainable aviation fuel to power its aircrafts.

Each guest pod is powered using solar panels. The pop-up camps are designed to be dismantled at the end of each season.

Andrew Macdonald

To this end, the explorer is launching the White Desert Earth Foundation, which is part research centre and part non-profit to support seagrass replantation in Cape Town (seagrass absorbs carbon 35 times faster than a tropical rainforest tree). The research centre will employ cutting-edge energy solutions in the coldest and windiest environment, from green hydrogen to lithium and superconductor batteries that won’t freeze in sub-zero temperatures. Future guests can opt in to support the foundation as part of their overall costs. As Woodhead sees it, big systemic shifts require big visions for the future, and one often just needs to see it work first. “If these solutions can work [in Antarctica], then what is your excuse?” he explains.

Travelling 9,000 miles to Antarctica might seem counterintuitive for someone who cares deeply about fighting the climate crisis. But every journey has an impact, both environmentally and emotionally speaking. And with any journey, we can ask ourselves how to best balance our quest for connection, belonging and wonder with environmental responsibility. There’s no doubt that my week in Antarctica was the journey of a lifetime – and for everyone else I was there with, too. As Woodhead says, while pointing to the miles of rippling ice waves in the distance, “Look at this place. No one can question the value of this.”