Arctic tourism and voyages to the top of the world

The Arctic has got to be one of the most fashionable destinations in the world. Any style magazine worth its weight in off-the-beaten path travel features is featuring the region as this year’s must-see. Adding further impetus to Artic travel are numerous documentaries, websites, pressure groups, photographers and journalists all charting the slow meltdown of global warming led by photogenic polar bears swimming for miles for food and collapsing glaciers dramatically cracking into the sea.

By Andy Round

The plight of the region has become such a part of our contemporary background that it’s no wonder demand for the region has become so high. The message is clear: come quickly or you’ll miss it. How this message translates into visitor numbers is astonishing. When Destinations of the World News asked one cruise operator how business was this year, he laughed saying he was fully booked and already on track to fill berths for 2009.

But under the weight of visitor numbers what are the challenges facing Arctic communities, the environment, the communities or the region’s infrastructure? When children in small indigenous communities start begging when there is no economic reason and tourists start peering through the windows of people’s Arctic homes as if they were in a museum, there are clearly issues to be addressed.

Add to this, the expectations of seasoned travellers, a need for some operators to become more service oriented and communities that can be stretched to the limit by tourism and there is plenty of food for thought. But when it comes to the environment are we too hyper sensitive to the idea of tourism in this fragile, beautiful place? Have all those televised bears and glaciers got under our skin to such an extent that we worry excessively about any human interference in their world.

After all, the environmental damage caused by oil and gas exploration and other industries such as mining surely poses a greater threat than a few camera-waving tourists in their holiday thermal wear. And do we just need a little more perspective? Only a few thousand travellers visit the Arctic every year compared to the hundreds of thousands of people that cross the manicured grass of New York’s Central Park every day. There are inevitably a lot of questions and the biggest of all is what does the future hold for the Arctic?

For tourism it seems visitor numbers will grow with capacity likely to be restricted by logistical issues such as the number of ice-strengthened ships. For industry, oil exploration continues to be main issue.

At the time of going to press, America’s Fish and Wildlife Service was head-to-head with big business as discussions continued regarding which company would have the right to extract 15 billion barrels of crude from under a polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea.

That’s an environmental concern, but in the long term we are facing, potentially, a completely different Arctic landscape altogether shaped by climate change. Now that’s frightening.A question of perspective.

The cruise industry, the criticism of tourism and the difficult search for cultural sensitivity.

Business is booming for Arctic cruise operators, but as growing numbers of tourists come to experience what is regarded as a rapidly disappearing attraction, is it all good news for the region?

The industry has certainly faced criticism. Per Kyrre Reymert, head of the environment department for the Arctic island Svalbard, for example, has said warming has allowed access to areas that were once impossible to reach with “cruise tourists coming across cultural and heritage sites and potentially destroying them without realising their importance”.

Is this alarmist scaremongering or genuine complaint? “I think this issue needs to be put into perspective,” says Frigg Jorgensen, general secretary of the Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO)

“Passengers are usually highly educated people that understand the importance of conservation. Secondly, our regulations and those of Arctic countries protect sites. Thirdly operators are responsible for managing them properly and it’s in their interests to maintain the pristine environment they are selling. Finally, compared to national parks in Alaska where many thousands visit, for example, the numbers of Arctic tourists are minimal.”

For Jorgensen the issue of site conservation is broader and she questions the ethics of protecting areas to such an extent that access is completely denied visitors.

“Personally I think there are challenges on a more superior level such as who owns the right to experience nature and cultural remains? Should they be protected for the future by closing them for today’s generation?” she asks. “So far no scientific reports, studies or inspections prove major negative consequences of tourism. These issues are discussed all the time.”

Reinforcing the level of tour operator responsibility, AECO members have to adhere to regulations drawn up with the help of environmental organisations. They are designed to go above and beyond national legislations of Arctic countries and International Maritime Law. Regulations range from ways of approaching animals, passenger briefings and ratios of guides and visitors to photographic etiquette, issues of ship safety and bear scaring.

So are we just being hypersensitive about environmental concerns in the Arctic and the impact? “No of course not,” says Jorgensen. “The industry of regional conservation and tourism is built on protection and understanding. It is important that there are sanctions and that people care. But let’s not forget that tourism is not the main economic provider in the Arctic region. The industries of oil and gas probably come under more scrutiny than tourism.”

However, it would be naïve to think that tourism and cruise ships are not having an impact on the region. A ship landing at a small Arctic village can stretch the limits of the community in terms of the logistics of supplies or harbour handling.

However, these issues can be resolved with planning, what is more important is the cultural impact on communities.

“It is never black and white,” Jorgensen says. “Tourists taking photographs without permission, walking over graves or treating a place as their own private museum is clearly wrong. But it is also wrong when we hear of children begging when there is absolutely no economic need. It gives a bad impression and is not good for the community.”

Many cultural concerns also need to be addressed with education particularly with regard to local people who are abandoning traditional lifestyles such as hunting or fishing to focus exclusively on tourism. “This is not going to provide a living throughout the year and is a sad cultural loss,” says Jorgensen.

So what of the future? Jorgensen anticipates tougher regulation of ships as demand for cruises increases. “The mentality of ‘see it before it goes’ will continue to impact on Arctic tourism, but I believe its growth will be restricted by the number of strengthened vessels available. You need specially adapted ships to explore this region and building new ones is economically challenging.”

Cruise control

“Places fill up very quickly and bookings are being made up to a year in advance,” says Frigg Jorgensen, general secretary of the Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) commenting on the popularity of the region’s cruise trade. “From virtually no tourists in the 1980s we now see around 30,000 visiting the Arctic island of Svalbard on cruise vessels.”

Growing numbers is a trend reflected by UK travel company WildWings. Managing director John Brodie-Good says that two years ago the operators he was using had three vessels now there are five plus a sailing ship and demand is exceptional.

“In 2008 there are practically no berths available now,” he says. “The season is also getting longer because of ice melt and we are not experiencing the logistical problems of even two years ago. Vessels are now able to reach previously inaccessible areas.”

Cruise Polar Quest, meanwhile, said that it had closed bookings for this year and was focusing on 2009.

Treasured island

The number of tourists to Svalbard, the main island of the region’s most famous Arctic archipelago, increased from 15,600 in 2000 to 24,900 in 2006.

The island’s tourism spokesperson Unni Myklevoll tells Destinations of the World News the figures do no exclude overseas cruise passengers.

The numbers of guest days has inevitably also increased from 48,001 in 1996 to 83,049 two years ago.

“The increase is not high,” Myklevoll says. “We have good rules and regulations to avoid negative impact. The limited number of hotel rooms as well as flights in low season also gives tourism a hard time.

“We are comfortably able to handle guests in a responsible way and we hope for more visitors in the dark season.

Burning issue

Whether you are for or against tourism in the Arctic there is no doubt that climate change is transforming the region and future visitors will have a very different experience from those of today.

The Arctic region is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world, according to Miriam Geitz, climate change officer for the World Wildlife Fund’s International Arctic Programme. This clearly will be devastating for the wildlife, regional communities and anyone who makes a living out of tourism.

Already the impact is being felt by the travel trade. Business is booming as travellers race up to the Arctic “to see it before it disappears”. However, some experiences which are good for the industry today may herald problems tomorrow.

For example more and more islands and previously inaccessible landmasses are opening up to cruise ships. The season which only two years ago used to start in late June, now covers the whole of the month. And as spring comes early, so the ice recedes more dramatically for summer.

One operator said a cruise company which offered trips to see Arctic whales experienced huge difficulties finding any of giant mammals and had to “travel 200 miles just to find any ice” when the vessel left from Canada.

Some impassable areas are now open for business. The famous northwest passage across the top of the world – once closed for generations – is now on many a tour operator’s agenda. Cruise giant Hapag-Lloyd, for example, is offering the trip from August 12 for US$20,000. Last year 162 passengers experienced the trip.

Sadly, the most photogenic of the disappearing wildlife and the biggest draw for tourists, the polar bear, is also suffering. The World Conservation Union has said that the population is expected to decline by more than 30 per cent in the next 45 years.

One operator told Destinations of the World News that one had to be killed during cruise visits ashore last year. Apparently they were so hungry they ignored the traditional tactics used by guides to scare them away.

The list of unusual Arctic wildlife reports is endless. In Lapland fishermen are reporting catching larger salmon and cod while reindeer are having more time to grow bigger due to milder winters. In the Canadian Arctic the warm temperatures have brought out giant swarms wasps which are inundating the Inuit people, who in 2005 had never seen a wasp before.

In Finland there have been reports of windsurfing increasing in popularity and in Denmark the country’s Wine Association has reported that warm temperatures and long summers are helping to produce more mature grapes.

As with any crisis there are opportunities for some people. US businessman Pat Broe who bought the Hudson Bay port of Churchill from the Canadian government in 1997 for US$7 may soon be use it as a tourist cruise ship hub. The area was sold cheap because ice kept it closed for most of the year. Experts think it will soon be able to open for 10 months placing its new value at US$100 million.

Greenland’s future vision

The giant island faces infrastructure issues as hotel use soars and cruise passenger numbers double in just five years.

It’s 5am Greenland time and already the head of the country’s tourism authority and business council is up and about. Over a shaky mobile telephone connection from the far north, Thomas Rosenkrands says he is well aware of the growing pressure being put on his country by soaring tourism figures and admits that there are serious challenges ahead.

It’s not always easy to collate visitor statistics in this part of the world, but according to last year’s Greenland in Figures report the number of hotel nights had increased from 212,000 in 2000 to 245,000 in 2006. However, exceeding expectations has been the amount of cruise business.

“We are expecting to record around 23,000 passenger arrivals for 2007,” he says. “In the past five consecutive years we have seen year-on-year record increases. In 2003 there were 10,000 cruise passengers, so we are experiencing more than 100 per cent growth in just five years.”

he impact of such substantial growth is manageable, says Rosenkrands, because infrastructure issues – such as accommodation or dining – are covered by the vessels. “We have the port structure to handle these cruise trips and have introduced a ‘Port Readiness’ scheme to prepare towns for visitors, it’s all about optimizing the small trips by helicopter, sightseeing, souvenirs or tours of the region, for example.”

However, many of Greenland’s challenges lie with the development of upgraded hospitality products. Rosenkrands says tourists from the US or Europe pay a premium to visit the remote island and expect a premium level of service.

They are very travel savvy, want to sleep in a luxury bed and enjoy good food, he says. Incredible Arctic visas and astonishing natural attractions are sometimes not enough to provide the full package.

“We have challenges certainly,” Rosenkrands says. “Challenges of the standardisation of hotels, the improvement of service, development of airports or more seats on aircraft. But an important consideration for us is that the tourism industry is anchored to the community and that local people can see a way to earn something from the industry. It would not be OK if 500 tourists come to a town and no money is earned by local people.”

Rosenkrands hopes that tourism growth of five to 10 per cent is sustained throughout this year, however a key concern is that already the peak summer months are packed with bookings as they were last year. The solution to avoid overburdening the infrastructure is to spread the visitor load over the shoulder months and off-season dates.

It’s the longer-term future that offers the greatest challenges. “In another five years we could see a doubling of numbers again. At present there is not the space for future growth.”

Rosenkrands believes that community impact is the most significant impact of tourism on Greenland, environmental concerns are important but the ratio of tourists to land space is minute. Heritage sites, conservation areas and natural areas of outstanding beauty are carefully zoned.

“Problems of tourism damage to the environment are negligible,” he says. “The people who want to explore the country, cross glaciers and so on, are very experienced, very plan focused and have been professionally prepared.”

And what about the daredevils who are perhaps looking for extreme adventure? “So long as they can afford the high price of a rescue helicopter…” Rosenkrands laughs. “Really, I don’t recall any specific incidents of serious problems.”

Many visitors are driven by a desire to see Greenland before climate change has a significant impact on the country. Global warming tourism is heating up. “Yes people come to see a product that may be on its way out,” says Rosenkrands. “And obviously it worries me, the change of temperature and it’s impact on communities and the way people could be living their lives in 50 years.

However, there are benefits as well, he says. Areas that were previously unseen can be visited by tourists and the potential for new business bases can be explored.

Sustainability and
new Arctic tourism

Peter Lugnegard is Chairman of the Sustainable Arctic Tourism Association, an organisation set up three years ago to promote, as the name suggests, sustainable codes of conduct in the region by working with conservation groups and travel operators.

One of the key areas of SATA’s work has been the introduction of training programmes for operators to underline sustainable practices such as environmentally responsible operation, nature conservation and visitor education.

Your organisation promotes and provides the use of sustainable standards for operators in the Arctic region. Why?

We believe that the way to assist operators is in their marketing efforts by showing they offer quality practices that they use it as a tool for marketing. Customers can see a label that represents a standard of quality and they know what to expect. Tourists are more demanding both in terms of service and sustainable practice. Long distance tourists demand more because they are used to certain level of service and have no overview of local problems. Operators are not used to long distance guests and they need to learn more about their needs.

To what extent is this necessary?

It’s about operator practise. One dog sled operator I know provided sets of thermal underwear to guests. They were surprised, but very grateful. It’s often the small touches that make a difference, like being thorough when telling visitors what to bring or reminding them to stay on worn paths because it’s more environmentally sustainable.

Have you heard of many irresponsible Arctic operator experiences?

It’s not in anyone’s interests to act carelessly. The prosperous tour operators are generally those that act responsibly. But there is confusion among both tourists and operators about what is most important and what is an acceptable level of quality. Here quality labels and guidelines make a difference.

But there are occasionally problems.

There are problems everywhere in the world where there are tourists. In the Arctic I have heard, for example, of tourist hunters who act like children in a playfield shooting excessively and don’t understand the damage they cause. Perhaps the guides or drivers who took them out there are inexperienced, intimidated or afraid they will lose a customer if they stop bad practice. We are aiming to change this mentality.

Is it unrealistic – due to geography or logistics – to police elements that are irresponsible?

Of course it’s not feasible, but I don’t think it’s a problem. Ultimately it’s got nothing to do with a force that ‘polices’, it’s the information, knowledge and demands of serious tourists that will hold things in check.

Service in the Arctic seems to be a particularly significant challenge.

Absolutely. People pay a large amount of money to come to the Arctic and they understandably have high expectations. There are sometimes areas of service that need to be improved. Typically, for example, there are local hunting or fishing guides who could benefit from a more customer-focused approach.

But you’re optimistic?

Yes, we are seeing more and more people wanting to experience the Arctic and service change will be driven by demand.

Climate change is clearly fuelling the increased numbers of tourists, what have been the most worrying aspects that you have witnessed?

There are lots of changes that are significant. The sudden spring rains that create floods are now officially a cause for concern in Sweden as they are pushing against dams that were constructed to cope with different levels of flow. This winter reindeer were having difficulty breaking through ground ice to feed whereas in colder temperatures the ground is covered with snow and easier to access. In the short term they had to be fed like cattle. Vegetation is changing we are seeing trees starting to appear on mountain peaks that used to just snow and ice.

What are your thoughts on the restriction of tourism in some areas to protect zones for future generations?

I think this is long-distance thinking and has been around since the start of tourism in the 19th century, It’s not about exclusion of areas, it’s about their management. There are lots of areas that are very popular and not littered because they are controlled in some way, just as there are remote inaccessible spots where you find litter.

But tourism can sometimes have a detrimental impact.

What is sometimes more troublesome is the impact on communities. A hundred tourists going into a shop that caters for a community of 15 homes and clearing it out of supplies or tourists wandering around villages peeping through people’s window because they think they are in a museum. These types of action create a negative attitude towards tourists.

But there are also positives of tourism?

There are many obvious positives. One of the most important is that operators have a duty to show how serious climate change will become and when tourists leave they learn to respect the environment more and take that attitude with them.

Arctic adventures

It used to be enough to hire a dog sled team or perhaps a pair of your favourite skis for a trip to the North Pole. All you needed was plenty of stamina, sturdy clothing and an insatiable appetite for adventure.

Today that’s just not going to cut it in a time-pressed cash-rich world that’s obsessed with the ‘experience’ of travel. You need to book a flight to the North Pole and then parachute over the frozen wilderness; book a passage on one of the giant icebreakers that will crash its way to the Pole in a couple of weeks or take you over the top of the world via the legendary ‘impassable’ northwest passage.

Alternatively you can balloon over the Arctic, make ice-carvings there, scuba under metres-thick ice or, incredibly, track down a Russian submarine that’s going to the North Pole. Seriously. Several companies are looking into the possibility.

Challenge of climate change

Miriam Geitz is the Climate Change Officer of the World Wildlife Fund’s International Arctic Programme. From her Oslo office in Norway she spoke to Destinations of the World News about global impact, the danger of cruise ship oil spills and whether the tourism industry is really facing up to the challenge of climate change.

Climate change in the Arctic is a dramatic and hugely sensitive issue, what are the World Wildlife Fund’s predictions for the region?

Firstly, it’s a global issue. There are dramatic changes that will affect, for example, the polar bear in the Arctic, but what we have to understand is that issues are worldwide. It’s the loss of snow cover and sea ice that is reducing the cooling function of the sea and air and eroding the cooling ability of the planet. The weather of the region is becoming wetter, stormier, more unpredictable and unstable. Change is not happening evenly and it is difficult, if not impossible, to stop once it gathers momentum.

What issues are you seeing in the Arctic?

A very visible change that has far reaching consequences for local people, the ecosystem and the world is the change in sea ice. The sea ice that covers the North Pole and Arctic Ocean has diminished rapidly in recent decades, most dramatically last summer. The sea ice is the key feature of the Arctic ecosystem and crucial for all marine life, including the polar bear. The ice also protects the coastline from winter storms, and some communities are having to relocate because without the sea ice their coast is no longer protected against erosion, while species are trying to adapt to the changes, for example by moving to find areas with conditions they are comfortable with. This mostly northward migration means that they are appearing in areas/communities where there are no words in the local language to describe them.

What are the challenges facing the Arctic from tourism?

We have seen tourism as the natural ally of nature and local cultures. The people who come to the region come mainly for the experience, are fairly considerate to preservation. Through their visit, hopefully, they are changed by the experience, connect with the region and become ambassadors to the rest of the world.

Do you have concerns about tourism’s growth?

Many of the concerns depend on human factors. The will is there to be sustainable, but it’s down to how well trained guides are, what the captain is like, the tour operators, if there are irresponsible individuals in a group... I think that it is also a question of attitude. If people are just coming to see a destination so they can tick it off a travel list, there’s something missing.

And the approach of tour operators?

I believe associations have done great work at self-regulation urging members to adopt sustainable practices. But they have to show they can implement the practices in their daily business. I also think the most interesting question is how will tour operators respond to climate change themselves. For instance will they visit new areas as soon as they open up, or will they take charge and forgo those areas – that may be sensitive to visitor pressure – to protect them? The Arctic has a very fragile environment that is already under pressure from climate change, pollution and human activities. Any human activity, not only from tourism, is a stress factor and should be carefully considered for its consequences.

What type of problems?

In general the WWF does not see tourism as a major threat in the Arctic, but there is always an element of risk. For example, we have spoken with members of the cruise industry in the past about the impact of a potential oil spill caused by a problem on board a ship or an accident. Of course the safety of the people on board is the priority. If it is an accident in a very sensitive area, for example close to a bird cliff, then any clean-up effort could be too late or in vain, and the impact on a species and the environment could be significant.

What about the impact of tourism on communities?

Tourism should give back to the communities visited, and if that is not the case, then there is something that needs addressing. Again it is down to the human factor and education.

Compared to the oil, gas or mining industries though tourism’s impact is minimal?

Yes, the scale of the risk associated with this type of industry is considerable compared to tourism. But it not just about scale, it’s about seeing the whole picture of human activities in a sensitive environment. If you are to give the environment a fighting chance you have to reduce as many threats as possible.


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