Climate change special? Many tourists are going to Antarctica as a ‘last chance destination’

RALEIGH, N.C. — Traditionally, tourists travel to Antarctica to enjoy the distinct land and wildlife. Interestingly, however, new research indicates a significant number of tourists are making the trek for purely social reasons, such as to celebrate an anniversary, get together with family and friends in an exotic location, or even go on a honeymoon.

Moreover, many tourists told study authors that they see their recent trip to Antarctica as a “now or never” vacation due to climate change. People have shared similar sentiments after recently visiting other locals endangered by climate change, like the Great Barrier Reef and the Arctic. Researchers from North Carolina State University say their work calls into question the effectiveness of both conservation appeals and educational efforts aimed at Antarctic tourists.

“Some people go to Antarctica for learning and experience, some people go to fulfill a lifetime dream, and some people go there as an adventure – they have been to many places, but they haven’t been there,” says study co-author Yu-Fai Leung, professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State, in a university release. “The social bonding group’s motivations were interesting. They didn’t mention anything about penguins or seeing other wildlife as a principal motivation; they’re going for a vacation, birthday or anniversary celebrations, and they chose Antarctica as the backdrop.”

More people, more problems

This research, conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, analyzed the 2019-2020 Antarctica tourist season. That year saw over 74,000 tourists, double the amount recorded just five years earlier. Study authors explain that while tourism in a place like Antarctica can be a positive, inspiring outsiders to get more involved in conservation efforts, it can also create new local problems.

“During the last two decades, a lot of new, different activities have been introduced in Antarctica that are drawing the interest of a bunch of people,” adds lead study author Daniela Cajiao, a former visiting scholar at NC State and former graduate student at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. “There are also new ways of traveling there. This is diversifying how you can access Antarctica, but also the profile of the tourists who visit.”

To get a better idea of why people were traveling to Antarctica, researchers surveyed tourists both before and after they traveled by ship or airplane to Antarctica during the 2019-20 vacation season. Notably, four main motivators kept coming up over and over: Experience and learning (31%), social bonding (28%), adventure (23%), or to “take a trip of a lifetime” (17.5%). Notably, tourists who fell into either the “social bonding” or “trip of a lifetime” groups often told researchers that this was probably their “last chance” to see Antarctica due to climate change.

“Now that we have more people traveling to Antarctica for adventure or social bonding, how do we think about communicating with these tourists?” Cajiao comments. “They may not want to attend all lectures. We need to think about how we can better deliver conservation and environmental messages so that any changes in people’s environmental concerns or behaviors last in the long term.”

An educational vacation

Next, study authors looked to see if members of specific groups were more likely to feel like they had “learned something” during their trip. For what it’s worth, tourists within the “trip of a lifetime” group were more likely to report higher perceptions of learning, while those in the “experience and learning” group displayed the highest overall average score for actual learning.

It’s also worth noting that a relationship was noted between tourists’ perception of how much they learned, and their subsequent intentions to change their environmental behaviors moving forward.

“We found that it’s not just about whether you actually learned facts or lessons about Antarctica, the continent, or the ecosystem,” Prof. Leung says. “It’s also about how much you feel you learned. This suggests that perception means a lot to people; it’s part of the experience.”

“If you feel you got something from the learning experience, then it will more likely change you and what you do after the trip. That has important implications for educators, communicators and tour operators.”

In the future, study authors are looking to conduct further research on this topic. For instance, how has the pandemic influenced tourism trends in Antarctica?

“We are curious to see how this shifts again after COVID,” Cajiao concludes. “Maybe people see the world a little bit differently.”

The study is published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.

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