Commercial tourism using both ships and aircraft has increased steadily since the first commercial expeditions in the 1950s. The total number of tourists visiting Antarctica in the 2007/08 season was around 46.000. The vast majority of these visitors travel on passenger vessels to the Antarctic Peninsula region, which can be reached from in South American ports in a few days.
Regular sightseeing passenger flights began in 1977 and developed using passenger aircraft flying from Australia.
The main ATCM regulations and guidelines for tourists and expedition organizers are contained in the Environment Protocol and Tourism Guidelines attached to Recommendation XVIII-1 (1994). Aside from establishing guidelines for tourist expeditions, the ATCM also provides for tourist expeditions to submit reports on their visits. The Guidelines of 1994 were supplemented in 2004 with guidelines on contingency planning, insurance and other matters; Measure 4 (2004), which sets out requirements in these areas, is currently being approved by the Consultative Parties.
The ATCM also issues specific guidelines for the sites most visited by tourists. They include practical guidance for tour operators and guides on how they should conduct visits in those sites, taking into account their environmental values.
Most tourist operators active in the Antarctic belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which also participates in the ATCM as an invited expert organisation.
In 2011, through Resolution 3 (2011), the ATCM adopted the General Guidelines for Visitors to the Antarctic, which provide general advice for visiting any location, with the objective of ensuring visits do not have adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment, or on its scientific and aesthetic values.
Parties implement the Antarctic Treaty and its Environmental Protocol into the domestic law. National legislations establish a permitting regime for activities in Antarctica, and eligible visitors are required to obtain the necessary permits in advance from the relevant Competent Authority of each Antarctic Treaty Party.