New safety rules to be imposed before the southern summer will require tourists and non-governmental visitors to have insurance and prepare emergency contingency plans before they head towards Antarctica.
The move was prompted by an incident last year when a solo pilot sparked a diplomatic incident after he ran out of fuel attempting a daredevil flight over the South Pole to Argentina.
Last December Australian Jon Johanson flew his homemade plane from New Zealand over the Pole but was forced back by headwinds to Williams Field, an ice-runway serving the US McMurdo Sound and New Zealand Scott bases, on the edge of the Ross Sea.
Both countries refused to sell him fuel despite a plea from Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. He eventually got home using fuel sold to him by another flier who had shipped it in for her postponed expedition.
Two years earlier 14 Russians flew to the South Pole on a plane that could not restart after it landed. They abandoned it and flew out on a US military aircraft.
Hapless adventurers a problem
While the nations which oversee the continent have long been aware of environmental concerns and enforced strict rules as a result, there was nothing to deal with hapless or unfortunate would-be adventurers who endanger themselves and others, Antarctica New Zealand environmental manager Neil Gilbert said.
"But there has been an awareness among the parties for a while that the international legislation deals largely... with environmental concerns and there is nothing requiring NGOs to have contingency plans, insurance (and) medical cover in place prior to their departure," he told AFP.
In Cape Town last month the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), in effect the continent's government, agreed on new controls, he said.
ATCM expressed concern "at the potential impacts, including the imposition of additional costs" of tourists and NGOs and "the risks to the safety of those involved in search and rescue operations".
The new rule will require risks to be fully identified in advance and minimised with contingency plans for search and rescue, medical care and evacuation from the vast 14 million-square-kilometre continent. NGOs will need insurance to cover any rescue costs.
To come into effect all 28 voting ATCM nations would have to change their domestic laws which would "take some time", Gilbert said.
Popular tourist destination
Once the preserve of hardy explorers and scientists, increasing numbers of tourists are now drawn to the white continent.
More than 21 000 tourists are expected this coming southern summer, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, against 8000 a decade earlier, with most going to the Antarctic Peninsula which points up to South America.
Gilbert said tourism on the New Zealand side of the continent had a negligible impact on scientific research.
"Unplanned or unknown private expeditions are those that have potential to cause most disruption, though to date these have been few and far between," he said.
Exploration website thepoles.com lists upcoming expeditions, among them Australian Rob Porcaro's plan to highlight youth depression by trekking alone to the South Pole.
He may bump into a group of three self-described "ice maidens" along the way and Caroline Wilton (22) of England who is planning to be the youngest woman to make the walk. A group of Malaysians will also be trekking. Another expedition will use a giant kite to pull a houseboat sledge through an area known as "the zone of inaccessibility".
On a more poignant visit, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest, will lay a wreath on the slopes of Mount Erebus to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the November 1979 crash of an Air New Zealand DC10 which killed all 257 aboard in an early tourism venture.
For the 85-year-old Hillary, it is a return to the continent where half a century earlier he led the New Zealand expedition to create Scott Base.