Foreign Office warning sends a chill over luxury Arctic cruises

Large distances between populated areas poses safety risk, but operators say the alert is 'ridiculous'

A century after Britain's most heroic polar expeditions, the Foreign Office has issued a strident warning to tourists seeking the midnight sun. As the Arctic cruising season gets under way, the Consular Division of the FCO cautions that "search-and-rescue capabilities are limited due to the large distances between populated areas".

The alert, published on the Foreign Office website, questions whether the cruise industry could cope with a serious incident in the icy waters of the far north: "The combined search-and-rescue ship capacity may well be less than would be needed to cope with even one of the small cruise ships that frequent parts of the Arctic."

The Foreign Office move triggered angry responses from tour operators. Paul Goldstein, of the adventure specialist Exodus, called it "completely out of order". He told The Independent: "Exodus has never had clients involved in an incident involving either animals or ice in Spitsbergen. We are disappointed by the negative publicity this ridiculous warning will generate."

Most British visitors who venture deep into the Arctic are on cruises around the Svalbard archipelago, whose largest island is Spitsbergen. A Foreign Office spokesperson told The Independent: "The increasing importance that the FCO places on crisis preparedness has led us to work more closely with crisis-response authorities and agencies in country, and has made us aware of potential risks and our obligation therefore to highlight them."

Around 100,000 Britons are expected to cruise in Norwegian waters this year, many of them on the ships of Hurtigruten – a luxurious ferry service that starts in Bergen but spends much of its journey beyond the Arctic Circle.

Kathryn Beadle, managing director of UK operations, said: "Any form of travel involves an element of risk. As long as passengers choose companies who can demonstrate a robust safety policy then we should not discourage such trips."

Voyages of Discovery cruises way beyond North Cape into the Barents Sea and onwards to Russia's White Sea on the edge of the European landmass. Its operations director Mike Deegan said: "We are confident of being able to operate safely north of the Arctic Circle. Our White Sea cruise parallels the Norwegian and Russian coasts for much of its track."

Arctic voyages tend to attract older travellers who are at higher risk of ill health. But Clive Stacey, managing director of Discover the World, said of his Svalbard holidays: "These voyages travel close to shore, and search-and-rescue arrangements are extremely good. The local authorities operate helicopters which can be on the spot within an hour."