It was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime to one of the world’s most remote and pristine continents, but Kent Cai now faces the prospect of being thousands of dollars out of pocket with little to show for it.
Cai is among at least 120 wealthy Chinese who have been left hanging after a Canadian tour company that charges more than US$14,000 for a single trip to Antarctica announced it had encountered financial difficulties last week.
One Ocean Expeditions has not responded to calls and emails from customers amid reports that two of its three ships have been recalled by their Russian owners, at least one trip has been cancelled, and staff are owed thousands in unpaid wages. The company did not reply to a request for comment from the South China Morning Post.
“Only four months of each year are available for tourists to go to Antarctic Peninsula, and just a few vessels can make land there. We just couldn’t wait to do the trip,” said Cai, a veteran traveller and entrepreneur from Zhejiang, one of China’s richest provinces.
At least 10 friends have already gone to Antarctica in the past couple years. Most of them are successful entrepreneurs, so of course I have to experience it as soon as possible
Cai and many other Chinese customers are furious and disappointed, but the incident has also highlighted the increasing appetite among affluent Chinese for off-the-beaten-path travel experiences – and the amount they are willing to pay for it.
Spurred on in part by a desire to brag about their travels on social media, a significant number of rich Chinese tourists are eschewing the relative safety of Europe and the United States for more adventurous destinations, such as the polar regions, Mount Everest base camp and the Amazon rainforest.
“This is kind of recognition of our self-worth and success, compared to our peers,” said Cai, who booked his Antarctic trip with six friends from the Yangtze River Delta and Chongqing province. All earn between 500,000 yuan (US$71,000) and 2 million yuan (US$285,000) a year running foreign trade companies, or working as senior executives in manufacturing or real estate.
“At least 10 friends have already gone to Antarctica in the past couple years. Most of them are successful entrepreneurs, so we seven have to experience it as soon as possible.”
Another Chinese customer of One Ocean Expeditions, who declined to give his name, said Antarctica was the final destination on his bucket list.
“I have visited every country and territory in the world – I just have the South Pole to go,” he said, adding the trip’s $14,000 price tag was very reasonable. “I even prepared and printed a banner with a slogan to promote my business when I land in Antarctica. It will help show my character and my company’s position.”
A total of 56,168 tourists visited Antarctica’s vast white ice sheets and glaciers during the 2018-2019 summer season, which runs from roughly late October to the end of March, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. More than 8,100 or about 15 per cent were from China, up some 3,000 from 2016-2017, making the country the second largest source of visitors behind America. This season’s figures were down about 100 on last year, but a massive leap from 10 years earlier when only 100 Chinese visited in total.
In 2018, Chinese travellers spent an average of 23 days on Antarctic tours, which typically cost between 50,000 yuan (US$7,100) and 200,000 yuan (US$28,000) per trip, according to Ctrip, the country’s biggest online travel agency. Prices varied based on how travellers accessed the remote region; either by boat across the frigid waters of the Drake Passage from South America’s Cape Horn or by plane from Chile or Argentina.
The surge in Chinese tourists, however, has not come without problems. Large parts of the continent are designated specially protected areas and are home to penguins, whales and seals, but the growing number of tourists from around the world has raised concerns about the environmental impact of mass tourism.
In early 2018, the Chinese government ordered individuals and tour organisers to minimise their impact on the Antarctic environment, banning them from hunting animals, collecting geological samples or interfering with wildlife. Tourists were told to leave no solid waste behind, and offenders could be blacklisted from the area for up to three years.
Similar guidelines were issued in 2016 for mainland Chinese tourists visiting the Tibet side of Mount Everest in a bid to crack down on graffiti in the scenic area.
Visitor numbers to Antarctica are expected to increase by more than a third over the 2019-20 season, reaching around 59,000 passengers, thanks to the anticipated launch of nine new ice-strengthened passenger vessels, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.
Industry insiders expect that the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Antarctic will stabilise in the next two or three years to about 8,200 each year
Rita Chen, head of the Beijing-based Cruise Department of Lameitour, said her company helped more than 4,000 Chinese travellers book trips to Antarctica last year and she did not see overall numbers dropping significantly.
“In the few years to 2018, the annual number of Chinese tourists travelling to the Antarctic rose sharply,” Chen said. “Last year there was subtle drop in numbers. [But] industry insiders expect that the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Antarctic will stabilise in the next two or three years to about 8,200 each year.”
Cai said One Ocean Expeditions had not responded to his calls and emails, but he would not let the experience put him off visiting this tourist season.
“No matter what the problem, we will all set out for the dream trip,” he said.
This article Chinese tourists’ Antarctica tour problems highlight market warming to off-the-beaten-path travel first appeared on South China Morning Post