China has announced the success of its first ever trip to the South Pole, in an expedition that saw 22 passengers making the over 20 hour journey from Hong Kong to Antarctica.
The journey has been heralded in Chinese newspapers as a milestone achievement and the beginning of a new era in tourism to the seventh continent.
Increased interest in the South Pole is also anticipated to boost scientific and environmental research into the region and assist the fulfillment of global treaties concerning the area.
The flight is said to be the result of 10 years worth of research and investigation efforts.
The voyage made by the commercial aircraft included a 15 hour flight to Cape Town, a further 5.5 hours to Antarctica and a final five hours to the pole itself. The plane landed on December 16 onto a 2.5 km (1.5 miles) runway that had been carved into the ice.
An executive of Hainan Airlines — who organised the flight — said that previously Chinese tourists had to use foreign tour agencies to travel to the South Pole. The importance of this flight lay in its independence of other countries.
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However, according to the BBC the second leg of the journey — from Cape town to Antarctica — was organised by White Desert, a tour operator that offers trips to the pole on a regular basis. Some have questioned the groundbreaking status that the flight has achieved in the media.
However, travelling by plane to the South Pole is highly unusual.
Typically tourists travel there by boat — usually from Argentina’s southernmost port of Ushuaia which costs around $5,000 (£3,750).
Others choose to go from New Zealand in a route that mimics that taken by famed explorers such as Sir Ernest Shackleton.
China has long set its sights on exploring the Antarctic area. In 2013 it identified the poles as strategic frontiers and Beijing’s recently announced five-year plan included increased investment into exploring the polar regions.
As such there is some political incentive in China pioneering the exploration and development of the poles, with a view to hold sway over how the areas are governed in the future.
Nengye Liu of the University of Adelaide according to the BBC that the flight:
… Is very symbolic. It ties in with the bigger picture of China getting more and more actively involved in Antarctic affairs. In Chinese media, this is presented as the first time that tourists can travel through a Chinese operator. Of course it’s extremely expensive but it does showcase China’s growing interest in the region.
After experiencing a dip after 2008, visitor numbers to the Antarctic are starting to rise again. The 2007-2008 season saw a high of over 46,000 visitors, though numbers started to decline as a result of the global economic crisis. However, last season saw 44,367 visitors to the South Pole, with numbers expected to continue rising.
Chinese tourists make up the second largest group of visitors to the area, outranked only by the US. Chinese interest in the Antarctic region are also on the rise however, increasing from less than 100 in 2008 to almost 4,000 in 2016.