Endless snow and glaciers, untouched coastlines and the thrill of following in the footsteps of renowned explorers are luring more Chinese to polar trips.
A total of 3,367 Chinese visited the South Pole from November to March, comprising about 9 per cent of the total number to the continent and ranking third after visitors from the United States and Australia, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.
Chinese travelers to Antarctica comprised only 0.2 per cent of the total 10 years ago, the association said. The travel season to the continent runs from November to March.
“China’s booming economy and a rapidly expanding middle class are making it one of the main clients for polar tourism,” said Han Weitao, vice-president of Tripolers, the only Chinese travel agency to join the Antarctica operators association.
The association was founded in 1991 to advocate, promote and conduct private-sector travel to the continent.
Although there are no exact figures for visitors to the Arctic, Han said more people are considering going there and many are taking Arctic trips for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“The numbers making polar tours will keep growing,” Han said, adding that more than 400 have applied so far for this year’s Antarctica and Arctic trips organized by the agency.
Xiao Feng from Beijing feels the 52,800 yuan ($8,627) it cost her for an 18-day trip to Antarctica in January and February was money well spent. She celebrated her 70th birthday there.
“When you are there, you can understand how powerful nature is,” Xiao said, adding that every minute in Antarctica had been unforgettable.
On the trip, she observed a penguin family and visited the Great Wall Station, China’s first Antarctic research station built in 1985. She now plans to travel to the Arctic.
Polar tour companies in China say prices for two-week trips to Antarctica range from 50,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan per person, while a North Pole trip varies from 160,000 yuan to 300,000 yuan.
Although a journey to the North Pole is the more expensive, this didn’t prevent Liang Yan from visiting the top of the world in 2011 on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. She believes the trip changed her life.
Liang, who is in her 20s and comes from Beijing, said, “Once you hit the road, although your body becomes tired, you never lose the will to go on.”
While Chinese are opting increasingly for such travel, Han said the lack of commercial polar cruises and policies on polar tourism will influence its healthy development in China.
Marine researcher Wang Zipan said the authorities should study policies to regulate polar tourism and encourage entrepreneurs to invest in it.
Qu Tanzhou, director of the State Oceanic Administration’s Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, said polar tourism had surged in recent years and the authorities should study this new trend.
“Polar tourism is open to the world, which definitely includes China, and proper guidance is needed,” Qu said.
However, Qu added that conditions in polar regions are harsh and when injuries occur, the minimum time for treatment is about 10 days.
Besides safety concerns, debate on tourism’s impact on the world’s coldest regions is heating up.
A study of penguins by the British Antarctic Survey has found a significant fall in the number of gentoo breeding pairs in Antarctica, but discovered no direct link with visitors.
Under the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators’ code of conduct, tourists cannot take anything to the continent, must keep noise to a minimum and keep at least 5 to 6 meters away from penguins, nesting birds and seals.
The code also states that ships carrying more than 500 passengers cannot land in Antarctica, a maximum of 100 passengers a time are allowed on shore and each guide must accompany at most 20 passengers.
From November to March, 37,405 global tourists visited Antarctica, an increase of 9 per cent year-on-year, according to the association.