Are crowded airports and hotels ruining your summer vacation plans? A cruise to the North Pole on the world’s first and only luxury icebreaker might be just the antidote.
The custom-built tourist ship Le Commandant Charcot plowed through sea ice on July 13 to make its first successful passenger voyage to the top of the Earth. More sailings are scheduled through the end of summer, with tickets starting around $40,000 per passenger and topping out at $126,000.
There’s no shortage of takers for the 245 slots aboard. This summer, at least 57,000 cruise passengers will arrive at Longyearbyen, the Norwegian archipelago from which Le Commandant Charcot and many other Arctic cruises sail. The environmental risks of polar adventure tourism are substantial, including the possibility of pollution. But if managed sustainably, tourist cruises can help build support for Arctic conservation and climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
The Arctic has long drawn tourists. Decades before the first successful expedition to the North Pole, they were exploring the Scandinavian Arctic, enjoying the fjords and the mountaineering, hunting and fishing expeditions enabled by indigenous guides in the early 19th century. Steamships created the market for Arctic cruises, including, eventually, visits to Alaskan destinations, Iceland and Greenland. By the early 1900s, Arctic tours were a thriving business, boosted by guidebooks and breathless media coverage.
Technology made Arctic exploration progressively easier, and 52 icebreakers made it to the North Pole between 1977 and 2004. Thirteen of those voyages were devoted to scientific research; the remaining 39 were for tourists.
Over the last decade, the retreat of the Arctic Ocean and a lengthening summer have further boosted Arctic cruising. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of unique tourist ships entering the Arctic increased from 77 to 104. The capacity of those ships, on an annual basis, grew from 74,177 to 91,166. Those are modest numbers — more people visited Venice over Easter weekend, after all — but the steady growth is drawing concern about tourism and overtourism.
There are good reasons to worry. In the event of a fuel spill, sewage leak or other accident, there’s little infrastructure available to clean up a mess. Larger cruise ships mean more human impact on wildlife hotspots, altering animal behavior and potentially trampling flora and scarce habitats.
Finally, Arctic tourists and operators can’t ignore their climate impact. In 2016, carbon emissions associated with tourism transportation (planes, ships, cars and other conveyances) represented about 5% of total global emissions. Emissions contribute to global warming and the melting of sea, creating more opportunities to cruise in the Arctic. It’s a wicked feedback loop that serves to encourage even more tourism, especially from affluent tourists in search of vanishing landscapes.
But the potential for harm should be seen as a reason to manage Arctic cruises wisely, not to shame and halt them. For over a century, conservation of wild places and the environment has entailed ensuring a steady supply of visitors. Those visitors not only create economic incentives for preserving the shrinking wilderness, they also create constituencies that want to protect them. Sir David Attenborough, the famed British naturalist and TV personality, put it best when he famously noted, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
The Arctic needs people to care about it. Sea ice will continue melting, perhaps at a quickening rate, well into the future. The Arctic Council — the non-binding organization of eight Arctic nations that could advance reasonable tourist regulations — is faltering because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tourists, even those who can afford $126,000 tickets on luxury icebreakers, can’t by themselves stop climate change and habitat deterioration. But they are not powerless, either. Over the past century, affluent tourists committed to wild places have played a crucial role in preservation, from the forests of Nepal to the early years of the now wildly popular US national park system. The Arctic and its supporters could do worse than to befriend luxury-loving elites wowed by the sea ice on the way to the North Pole.
That doesn’t mean cruise companies should get a free pass on how they conduct themselves at the top of the world. A trade association, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, has developed sustainability guidelines for Arctic cruises, and represents and certifies most Arctic cruise operators.
Among other requirements, tourist cruises are expected to contribute to science and research while running clean, sustainable ships. Le Commandant Charcot, owned by the French cruise operator Compagnie du Ponant, is equipped with two science laboratories and several scientists (who also provide lectures to the passengers) and can serve as an example to other Arctic shipbuilders and tour operators.
As the world warms, a trip to the Arctic will be an expensive luxury. But it’s a ticket that might lead humanity toward a cooler future.