If you want a safe, climate-conscious vacation stay close to home rather than cruising the Arctic, says one observer. Meanwhile those who hope to benefit from such cruises say careful advance planning is needed.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.
Arctic cruises are the latest thing in high-end tourism. Icebergs, polar bears, beluga whales, awe-inspiring vistas and isolated Inuit communities – what’s not to like for the jaded traveller?
This summer, thousands of people will sail the Arctic’s increasingly ice-free waters. At the very top end, the world’s most luxurious cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, will traverse the Northwest Passage from Anchorage to New York City. The 1,070 passengers will pay up to $120,000 (U.S.) for the privilege. But here’s the thing: Arctic cruises involve greater hazards and environmental impact than just about any other kind of tourism.
Among the hazards are small chunks of icebergs called “growlers” that are exceptionally hard and float low in the water, making them difficult to spot. In 2007, a small ice-strengthened expedition cruise ship struck a growler and sank during an Antarctic voyage, in conditions similar to those now found in the Arctic. And while climate change is melting the sea ice, which forms on the surface of the ocean in winter, icebergs are actually increasing in number, as melt water lubricates the movement of land-based glaciers into the sea.
Running aground is another hazard, given that Arctic waters are poorly charted. In 2010, an expedition cruise ship ran onto a shoal in the Northwest Passage that was not shown on marine charts. Fortunately, the weather was good and a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker was only two days’ sailing away.
Arctic weather is unpredictable and often severe. “Icing,” caused by ocean spray freezing onto the superstructure of a ship, is of particular concern because it can destabilize and even capsize a vessel. Yet search-and-rescue systems would be overwhelmed by any accident in the Arctic involving more than a few dozen people. The Canadian Forces’ search-and rescue helicopters sometimes require two days to reach the Northwest Passage from their bases in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia.
Oil spills are also a concern. A cruise ship the size of Crystal Serenity carries more than a million litres of fuel oil. In 2004, a much smaller cargo ship lost power in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, was blown aground and broke apart, spilling 1.2 million litres of fuel oil. Almost none of it was recovered because of the remote location, severe weather, and the near-complete absence of oil-spill cleanup equipment and personnel.
Crystal Serenity is very professionally managed, which will minimize the risks. But the voyage will draw other cruise ships north, making a serious accident almost inevitable. No one expected, in 2012, that the Costa Concordia would run onto well-charted rocks along the coast of Italy.
Just as problematically, Arctic cruises constitute a form of “extinction tourism,” in which people travel to see a species or culture while they still can.
Climate change is advancing quickly in the Arctic, threatening a food chain based upon plankton and Arctic cod that have evolved to live in cracks and crevices under the sea ice. As the ice disappears, so do these species and the predators they sustain, including beluga whales and polar bears.
Worse yet, Arctic cruises create their own climate change “feedback loop.” These trips are only possible because the sea ice is melting, and their carbondioxide emissions contribute to even more melting in years to come.
Consider the emissions associated with the Crystal Serenity: Passengers will fly from their homes to Anchorage, and return at journey’s end from New York. On board the ship, they will enjoy food products that have also travelled great distances. They will be cared for by 655 crew members, each with their own smaller but still significant climate footprint. All the while, the ship will be burning fuel oil for propulsion, heat and electricity.
The best argument in favour of Arctic cruises is that they raise awareness about climate change. Witnessing a beautiful ecosystem under threat can move some people to action, but I have also seen climate-change deniers double down on their beliefs when sailing newly open Arctic waters. The issue is not whether the sea ice is melting, but whether we accept the scientific process that has produced thousands of peerreviewed articles explaining the cause.
The Arctic is beautiful and threatened by greenhouse gas emissions, but so are the birds and flowers in your local park. If you want a safe, climate-conscious vacation, try staying closer to home.
Vicki Aitaok is an entrepreneur and an educator. She runs the airport concession and an outfitting company called Qaigguit Tours and teaches adult education programs at the local college.
Doubling our population for a day sounds crazy. Can we do this? Do we even want to do this? These were only two of the questions I kept asking myself as the residents of Cambridge Bay (Cambridge Baymiut) prepared for the arrival of the Crystal Serenity cruise ship and its more than 1000 passengers and 600 plus crew on Monday, August 29, 2016. In order to make this a memorable day for the passengers and for the people of Cambridge Bay, the whole town had to be involved. I have been organizing events around the arrivals of cruise ships for the past ten summers. But this was the largest ship we have ever had visit our community!
Since 2007 I have worked with a small group of people in the community who like to help out during the cruise ship season. Tour guides, performers, elders, children, athletes, drivers. Five days a year I can provide them with employment and there is never a shortage of helpers.
The cruise ships spend about half a day in the community and it is important to me to make their day authentic and memorable. We offer guided tours where they get to know the guide on a first-name basis. Our cultural performances provide education – we teach the guests a few Inuinnaqtun words, some arctic sports, throat singing and drum dancing. We provide a fun fashion show with elders and youth dressed in traditional clothing and carrying tools and hunting equipment of the past. The community members and passengers build relationships that last a lifetime. Personal details are shared about community life, city life, the merits of northern living vs southern, and so on. These relationships are great but you can’t feed your children on them. Our community members also expect the cruise ship passengers to buy local arts and crafts and to contribute to the economy in some way. Paying for the performances and tours is crucial but not always enough. We hold artists’ markets and provide every opportunity for the passengers to take a piece of the Arctic back with them. We love having the passengers try on sealskin hats and mitts, talk to carvers about their unique sculptures made from soap stone, musk ox bone, caribou antler and sample new foods such as muskox sliders, caribou stew, smoked arctic char, muktuk (whale blubber), char jerky and cranberries. But this visit was going to test our capacity.
When the Crystal Serenity anchored off the shore of Cambridge Bay, the tourists came into town in groups of 100 and stayed for two and a half hours. By breaking into these smaller groups, the town was never overflowing with people nor were we ever unable to handle them. The numbers worked wonderfully! Economic advantages are huge on cruise ship days if we have the right products and services. Passengers pay for the services provided to transport them into town, show them around, and ensure facilities are open and ready. Serenity passengers left donations of over $500 at the local Anglican church out of the kindness of their hearts and spent more than $110,000 in products, souvenirs and services throughout the town.
I’m happy to say we didn’t have any bad experiences with the Serenity. The people were very friendly and interested. One couple came off the first bus in the morning, stood and listened to my welcoming spiel about where to go and what to do and then politely requested to go back on the bus and back to the ship. I was quite shocked to tell you the truth! However, I learned later that this particular couple had done the same thing at every one of their Northern stops. They wanted to be the first to get off the ship, the first to be in town, and then the first to get back on to the ship!
But they were the exception and not the rule. In order for the community tours to be successful, the visitors need to show respect and be polite and kind. They may not be interested in trying muktuk, but no need to turn their nose up at it or make a rude remark as this would be very insulting to us. None of these passengers did that. They all handled the new experiences with class and style.
We anticipate and welcome a growing number of ships coming to Cambridge Bay. However, the Crystal Serenity spent two years preparing and talking and listening before arriving. Other ships need to do the same type of advance preparation in order for their visits to be successful. Cruise ship operators can prepare their passengers by having Inuit guides on their ships who are able to talk about the culture and code of ethics before arriving at the communities. There are expectations that northern communities cannot meet due to lack of infrastructure, such as high speed internet. Passengers and crew need to know this before they get here so they won’t be disappointed.
The residents of Cambridge Bay also need to be better prepared. If we are to see more ships coming here and host them properly, then more Cambridge Baymiut need to come out and get involved. There are lots of opportunities for guiding, hosting, transporting, feeding, performing, etc. We need advance commitment and reliability from all of our residents in order to provide proper services and products.