DALLAS • In January 1966, the first ship carrying "citizen-explorers" arrived in Antarctica. Only a handful of leisure travellers had ever considered visiting the world's most remote land mass.
"I was aware the idea of setting up tours to that frozen continent would be tangled with complications," wrote Swedish-American entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindbland, who led that group of 57.
A half-century later, the near-impossible has become merely a challenge. While the threat of its ice sheet melting away occupies climatologists, wealthy travellers are scrambling to get there before the party's over.
The number of people landing on Antarctica is poised to surpass its annual record of 46,000, fuelled in part by new travel options and a surge of Chinese adventurers. On average, about 35,000 to 40,000 people visit each summer, which in Antarctica lasts from November to February. The peak came in the 2007-08 season, before the financial crisis dented Antarctic tourism.
Americans lead by a wide margin, with about 12,300 visiting in the 2014-15 season. That is three times the number from Australia, followed by China, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Not surprisingly, the cruise industry dominates travel to the continent, with most landings on the Antarctica Peninsula, a roughly 40-hour voyage from the southern tip of Argentina. More than 90 per cent of visitors go aboard ships.
Much of the buzz is coming from the luxury end of the cruise business. An Antarctica cruise costs at least US$10,000 (S$13,500), said Mr Bob Levinstein, chief executive of CruiseCompete.com.
This growth, however, could pose new threats to a continent designated a natural reserve "devoted to peace and science" and governed by the 53 nations party to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Officially, anyone visiting is permitted to have "no more than a minor or transitory impact" on the environment.
"We don't want to see casinos, we don't want to see souvenir shops," says Mr Gordon Dirker, Norwegian operator Hurtigruten's North America managing director.
"The whole thing you've got with Antarctica is the pristineness of the place. So if you want to destroy that, then you destroy the whole opportunity."