China's first flight lands on Antarctica over the weekend. (Photo/Courtesy of Deer Jet)
Signal of new era in tapping polar travel
China's first flight to Antarctica successfully landed on Saturday night, a move signaling the country has started a new era of tapping the nascent South Pole tourism market, which will lift China's position and influence as a rising power in the region, an expert said.
The flight, operated by Deer Jet, HNA Group's corporate flight subsidiary, carried 22 Chinese passengers from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on Thursday to the Earth's southernmost region, transferring in Cape Town, South Africa after a 15-hour flight to refuel. After the layover, the aircraft then took off again for another 5.5-hour flight and successfully landed on a 2,500-meter runway at an airport in Antarctica, according to a statement Deer Jet sent to the Global Times over the weekend.
After some well-needed rest, the passengers were scheduled to take a DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft to the South Pole after an additional five- to six-hour flight, with the group set to become the first Chinese tour group to land at the Earth's most southernmost point, according to the statement.
A senior executive from the HNA Group hailed the launch of the route as a "milestone."
"Prior to the launch of the new flight, China had not developed any tourism resources, nor had it participated in any form of rule-making in Antarctic tourism," the senior executive told the Global Times over the weekend.
In the past, Chinese tourists who wished to visit the South Pole had to take cruises run by foreign companies around the white continent, the executive said, noting that the launch of the new route will put an end to that situation.
"The commercial flight once again proves that China is gradually shifting from a big country doing activities in the region to a strong one," Dong Yue, a research fellow at the Polar Research Institute of the Ocean University of China, told the Global Times on Sunday.
"However, protection comes before utilization. We need to shoulder our obligation to protect the natural resources in Antarctica as a consultative country of the Antarctic Treaty, even though the first flight has much significance in pioneering for the country," Dong stressed.
Wang Wen, executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies affiliated to the Renmin University of China, also a passenger on the inaugural flight, told the Global Times over the weekend that China's march into developing Antarctic tourism resources will lift its position and influence as a rising power in helping govern the South Pole, as well as in promoting the region's technological cooperation, environmental protection and compliance with international laws.
In recent years, more Chinese have been travelling to the Polar Regions - that is, the Antarctic and Arctic - according to a document that online travel agency Ctrip sent to the Global Times in early December.
The number of Chinese tourists traveling to view the Northern Lights has increased fourfold in 2017 compared with last year.
In terms of Chinese travelling to Antarctica, the number is forecast to increase 200 percent year-on-year in 2017. Nearly 100 itineraries covering the region priced from tens of thousands of yuan to 300,000 yuan ($45,394) are currently posted on Ctrip's website, the document said, adding the most favorable one links Brazil, Argentina and Antarctica, which takes as long as a month.
Most travelers to the region go during the region's summer, ranging from December to February, Dong said. "The high price is mainly due to the high altitude of the continent, requiring long journeys. Also, the lack of tourism support facilities in the southernmost continent adds to the rarity" of the trip, he noted.
According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), China became Antarctica's second-largest tourist source in the world in 2016 after the US, accounting for 12 percent of some 46,000 visitors, media reported in November. Travel to Antarctica has become a growth point for China's tourism and ocean economy that requires attention, noted Dong. "Personally, I think the number of Chinese travelers will overtake that of the US in the next few years," Dong said.
However, China has no say or decision-making power in tourism rules relating to Antarctica, in which IAATO plays a major role, Dong said, noting a law related to the region's activities including civilian tourism should be quickly enacted by China.