With ever-improving tourism links and visa agreements with countries around the globe, the world has never been a smaller place for Chinese travelers. While a trip to Hong Kong at one point was worthy of bragging rights, it’s now become a staple destination that instills little excitement in China’s increasingly experienced travelers. Even Europe and the United States have gone from exotic destinations to easily accessible places for travelers with varying levels of affluence and travel experience. Chinese travelers looking for something unique and genuinely worthy of bragging rights are now turning to the Arctic and Antarctica for travel that is truly exclusive—and prohibitively expensive for many.

The next exotic destination for Chinese tourists: Antarctica

While there’s a variety of small Chinese travel startups that sell tours to the world’s least inhabitable regions, Alibaba’s travel brand Fliggy goes one step further and will start offering five China-exclusive Antarctic cruises in 2019.

Cruises to the North and South Poles have already reached the level of popularity in China to warrant China-exclusive cruises sold directly by one of its major online travel agencies (OTAs).

The recently announced 2019 line-up expands upon the four China-exclusive cruises Fliggy is offering for January and February 2018—and continues the exclusive partnership between Alibaba’s Fliggy and Hurtigruten, a Norwegian company best known for its fjord cruises.

Hurtigruten is adding capacity to meet rising demand in China

“Expedition cruising is one of the fastest growing segments in the travel industry, and China is one of the most dynamic travel markets in the world. Hurtigruten is a very good fit for Chinese guests, offering active and unique adventures to some of the world’s most spectacular destinations,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said in a press statement.

Fliggy’s Antarctic cruises will take place on Hurtigruten’s M/S Midnatsol (Midnight Sun), a cruise vessel with capacity for 1,000 passengers. It is unclear how many Chinese travelers will be allowed on each tour, but the number will likely be lower than the total capacity of the ship. The vessel, which usually travels the Bergen-Kirkenes route in Norway, only offers 644 beds—which probably is a limiting factor for a multi-day cruise to Antarctica.

Of course, Fliggy and Hurtigruten won’t bring Chinese travelers by ship all the way from China to Antarctica—the cruise sets off in Ushuaia, Argentina.

“We’re excited to work with such a strong partner. Fliggy allows us to reach a large base of Chinese travelers seeking interactions with nature and wildlife bigger than themselves to put life into perspective,” William Harber, President for China & Asia-Pacific at Hurtigruten, said in a statement to Seatrade Cruise News about the company’s partnership with Fliggy.

The industry is showing no signs of slowing down. According to China Tourism Association Secretary-General Zhang Rungang, China has already become the second-largest source of visitors to Antarctica, with 3,944 Chinese nationals visiting in 2016. China represents an even more substantial proportion of visits to the Arctic, with estimates putting the number at between 25-50 percent of annual visits.

Fliggy considers launching its own vessel for Chinese tours to Antarctica

According to a report in state-owned People’s Daily, Hurtigruten will launch a third vessel for Antarctica trips in 2018 to meet rising demand in the Chinese market. The paper also reports that Fliggy is mulling the possibility of launching its own vessel that would take its customers to Antarctica in 2019.

While the rise of high-end Chinese travel to the Arctic and Antarctica certainly is good business for Fliggy and Hurtigruten—and good news for travelers wanting something different—it also raises concerns about tourists’ environmental impact on local ecology and wildlife. According to China, new regulations pertaining “non-scientific research activities” in Antarctica can be expected later this year.

Of course, if China were to set a cap on Antarctic travel, it would only enhance the exclusiveness of taking part in such tours among China’s elite travelers.

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