Antarctica: The new hot destination

As the global recession thaws, affluent Chinese in pursuit of a different vacation are spending lots of cold, hard cash on South Pole adventures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:48am

Zeng Jinger's childhood dream was to visit a place very few of her compatriots would have agreed was the ideal overseas holiday. It has no shops, no people, and no food - or at least not for human consumption.

A trip to the Antarctic is a dream that's coming true for an increasing number of travellers, including those from China.

"I wanted to see the vastness, the ice and it was worth it. But it's only become possible recently," says Zeng, a Guangzhou-based media executive who made her trip last year on a ship that sailed out of Argentina.

Zeng is part of the growing urban upper class in Chinese cities who are changing tourism patterns in the world's second-largest economy by spending more of their disposable income on adventure travel.

Two years ago, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators didn't even list China in its statistical overview of tourists. An estimated 2,328 Chinese citizens travelled to the Antarctic, which includes the continent of Antarctica, in last year's travel season, which usually runs from November to March, according to the association's data.

Over the last three years, the increase in Chinese tourists to the Antarctic had only been constrained by the scarcity of tickets, as agencies were unable to meet demand, said Hu Huamin, chairman of Beijing-based travel consultancy DPS.

He said he expected a steep increase in tourists as agencies recognised the public interest. "This reflects a growth trend in Chinese tourism," he added, as more wealthy Chinese tourists were ready to spend more on extravagant trips. "Chinese tourists are now seeking extremes."

The number of Chinese travelling abroad doubled between 2005 and last year, reaching 83 million, according to the World Tourism Organisation, a United Nations agency.

Last year, consumers in China became the world's largest tourism spenders, shelling out US$102 billion on leisure trips abroad, the organisation says. Germany ranked second with US$83.8 million and the US third with US$83.7 million. By 2015, global expenditure by Chinese tourists could almost double again to US$194 billion, according to an estimate by Morgan Stanley.

By 2020, 54 per cent of China's urban households, or 225 million people, will be in Zeng's income range. The media executive spent 126,000 yuan (HK$160,000) on her 17-day trip to Argentina in December last year, which included a 10-day tour by ship to the Antarctic.

An average urban dweller in her home province would have to work almost five years to afford such a journey, according to provincial statistics. But a growing number were willing to invest in an experience, said Vincent Lui, a Hong Kong-based partner at Boston Consulting Group who studies Chinese luxury tourism patterns.

There is a "strong desire to go straight to the ultimate destinations and skip the popular, frequently visited ones," he said. "To a certain niche segment in China, Antarctica could be the ultimate destination."

Tourism to the Antarctic mirrors how the growing level of wealth is fundamentally transforming global travel, catching tourism operators and even environmentalists unaware.

With the rise of tourism in unusual and fragile places, environmentalists worry that the new popularity of places such as Antarctica could destroy eco-systems. Chen Danhong, a researcher with the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration in Beijing, warned in a paper published last year in the Chinese Journal of Polar Research that the country's tour operators were not familiar with the fragility of the Antarctic ecosystem.

They were also ill prepared for emergencies that could arise in the rough and isolated waters, she wrote. "China's tourism industry in the Antarctic can develop in a healthy and orderly way only if the conditions are ripe and [tourism] is gradually promoted," she added.

Tourism to Antarctica is booming again after plummeting during the global recession, says Dr Daniela Liggett, a lecturer at Gateway Antarctica, the centre for Antarctic studies and research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"This [the recession] had a considerable impact on the market," she said. "Now tourist numbers are slowly increasing again, possibly reflecting some economic recovery and shifting markets."

While the total number of tourists to the southern continent increased by about 30 per cent last year, the number of Chinese tourists more than doubled. China overtook Canada as the Antarctic's fifth-largest source of tourists last year, behind the United States, Germany, Australia and Britain.

The Antarctic tourism association says it expects the number of overall tourists to the area to increase only 2.1 per cent this year, but growth rates for Chinese tourists are expected to be much higher.

The interest is too lucrative to go ignored, say travel agents. Tourism consultant Hu Huamin says agents offer such tours in most major Chinese cities.

For now, travelling to the Antarctic is still an upper class privilege. "We mostly see company executives going, with plenty of money and time on hand," said Yuan Ri, a sales and marketing executive for Guangzhou-based travel agency Diadema.

Tian Jing with the Beijing-based travel agency Amazing Tours says her company charges an average of 180,000 to 190,000 yuan for Antarctic trips. Amazing Tours started offering trips via Argentina in 1997, Tian said, making it the first Chinese travel agency to offer such tours.

"At the time, we organised trips for journalists and film crews," she said. "Only in around 2004 did we start to offer regular tour groups."

This season, the agency plans to take about 400 Chinese travellers to the Antarctic, about 80 more than last year.

When the Tripolers travel agency in Beijing organised its first trip to the Antarctic in 2006 it signed up a dozen people. The agency plans to handle about 200 people this season on two ships from Argentina and a plane, a Douglas DC-3 Basler, via South Africa.

"Eighty per cent of our tickets sold out within three hours," says company sales representative Tang Guodong. "Our clients are looking for a new challenge. They have been everywhere else already," he added.

The urge to explore new and different destinations has been fuelled by the wildly popular online television series On the Road, broadcast online by Youku, China's equivalent of Youtube. Hosts Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong travel the globe, including out of the way places such as Somalia, Chernobyl and Vanuatu.

In its first season, the series racked up more than 100 million views, inspiring a new generation of travellers. And for the second season, Zhang and Liang have set sail for the Antarctic, where they plan to get married.

"This was my dream," said Zhang in a recent episode. "I want to prove that as a Chinese, I can get there too."