A History of Antarctic Tourism by Diane Erceg

PhD candidate Diane Erceg says that when she tells people she is writing a thesis on the history of tourism in Antarctica, they often reply with a mixture of relief and surprise. Relief that they don’t require a dictionary or flowchart to understand her research topic and surprise that there is enough tourism activity to fill the pages of an entire doctoral thesis.

‘Organised tours to Antarctica have, been going on since 1966,’ she says. ‘Over the following decades, tourist numbers grew, gradually at first and then rapidly, and activities diversified to include skiing, mountaineering and marathon running. Today, tour operators take around 40,000 people to visit the frozen continent each year.’

Is tourism appropriate in such an extreme environment? Is it interfering with the work of scientists? What is its impact on fragile Antarctic ecosystems? Such questions have inspired public debate, academic scholarship and government regulation for almost fifty years. However, few studies or debates have approached the topic from the tourist’s perspective. What draws people to the world’s most uninhabited and uninhabitable continent? Who is responsible for pioneering, promoting and packaging Antarctica as a tourist destination? And how have broader cultural and technological shifts shaped the course of Antarctic tourism? These are the questions Erceg is addressing in her research, and she believes the answers will add a useful and insightful perspective to the conversation about Antarctic tourism.

Erceg has spent much of the first two years of her PhD gathering primary sources on which to base her work. This has involved recording the oral histories of Antarctic tour operators around the world,  some of which were recorded from her desk in Canberra, and others which have taken her as far as New York City, the Netherlands and, of course, Antarctica. She has also sifted through government and private archives in Australia and the United States, finding reports, letters, photographs and advertising material that brings Antarctic history to life.

One of the best sources of information, is her own personal experiences in Antarctica.   For the past nine years, she has worked as a guide on expedition cruises in Antarctica and been immersed in the world she has now set out to study. ‘The opportunity to step-back and reflect on that world – how it emerged and what it tells us about ourselves – is a great privilege,’ she says. ‘I find that having such an intimate understanding of the subject I’m studying really enriches my work.’

Erceg says she agrees with the social historian, RT Tawney, who once wrote that historians need ‘a stout pair of boots.’ She would only add that Antarctic historians should make sure that theirs are insulated.

For further information:

Digging Deep into the US National Archives