Go to the ends of the earth – but at what cost?

The melting ice caps have made the Polar regions more accessible to tourists. But should we be visiting, asks Mark Rowe

The Northwest Passage, the Arctic route linking the Atlantic and Pacific, gnawed away at Roald Amundsen until he finally navigated a route in 1905. It had claimed the lives of countless brave, often foolhardy explorers, most notoriously the 130 men of the 1845 Franklin expedition, who along with their two ships, simply vanished into the icy wasteland.

But today, thanks to climate change and the associated rapid loss of sea ice, the Northwest Passage has become one of the most dramatic and visually magnificent tourist destinations. This year in high summer, a small number of cruise ships will embark on the journey, confident that they will be able to navigate their way through the evaporating ice. It promises to be a spectacular trip: tourists are all but guaranteed to see polar bears, walruses, whales, seals, and migratory birds in a setting of extraordinary beauty; but it is a scenario that has provoked an ambivalent response within both tourism and scientific communities.

"It's a tough question because nothing beats seeing a place at first hand and the Arctic is a place that really resonates with people," said Kristina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, the oldest conservation organisation in the US. "You cannot begrudge those who have the chance to make such a trip, but it's really sad that climate change makes it possible. But there is a responsible way to go with tourism in the Arctic, and an irresponsible way.

"There has to be a balance, because the more people who get to experience the raw Arctic for real, and the more they see polar bears in the wild, the more likely they will be moved to campaign for its protection."

The concern of conservationists is that a cruise ship may hit an iceberg, or spring a fuel leak, causing devastation to a pristine wilderness. In response, cruise operators to Svalbard, the northerly archipelago owned by Norway, and Greenland have established the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, which is dedicated to managing environmentally friendly and safe expeditions in the Arctic. The organisation comprises 13 companies from seven countries operating 21 vessels, with sizes ranging from small sailing yachts to cruise ships with up to 320 passengers.

"The polar regions are becoming more popular not because the ice sheets are melting but because clients are looking to push boundaries," said Jarrod Kyte, UK manager of Peregrine Adventures, which plans to sail through the Northwest Passage this summer.

Mr Kyte acknowledges the contrary position of companies such as his – taking people to areas of great conservation value simply because the melting ice sheets now enable them to do so. "We can offer tours to places like the Northwest Passage without certain operational headaches," he said. "Five years ago, you would have needed an ice breaker; now you just need an ice-strengthened vessel.

"You can't protect what you don't know. We have nothing to gain from treating the Arctic and Antarctica like exhibits in a museum. We are not running fun cruises where people play bingo or pool aerobics. Climate change and conservation are big topics for our lecturers. It makes what is happening far more tangible for our guests."

Concerns about polar tourism extend to Antarctica, where visitor numbers have expanded in recent years. Bolstered by a safety record that was second to none, cruise operators raised the number of visitors from 4,698 tourists in the 1990/91 southern hemisphere summer to 24,281 in 2003/04. The release of the documentary March of the Penguins has since pushed numbers above 30,000. The largest vessel going to the Antarctic last season, the Golden Princess, carried more than 2,000 people.

But last year, the incident that conservationists feared finally happened: in November the MV Explorer hit an iceberg and its 154 passengers and crew had to be evacuated. No one was seriously injured and there was no fuel leak, but the accident has prompted a review of procedures for cruise ships to Antarctica.

Others feel more control is required. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), a large grouping of environmental organisations, is alarmed that visitors can parachute, ski, ride a motorbike or fly a helicopter over the continent. Jim Barnes, executive director of ASOC, believes that progress has been made in the past two years. "A signal has been sent to the tour operators that some types of tourism are undesirable, such as large ships carrying more than 500 passengers and land-based tourism infrastructure. But there are still no legally binding measures in place on any aspect of commercial Antarctic tourism."

Overall, ASOC fears that tourism will become entrenched as the main Antarctic activity in terms of scale and influence, with an erosion of intrinsic values of Antarctica and the primary role of science and environmental protection. "There may be some educational benefits from some kinds and scales of tourism so long as it is conducted properly – but 'properly' needs to be defined carefully," said Mr Barnes.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project