How to

22 August 2016

How Much is Cruise Ship Tourism Damaging the Arctic?

Img via
Even as I write this, the Crystal Serenity, one of the largest cruise ships ever conceived, is hauling hundreds of tourists up the fabled Northwest Passage. It's following a route from Vancouver, through the Arctic, back around and down to New York City, a voyage which will take 28 days to complete (it set off on the 10th of August). The Crystal Serenity is by far the largest ship ever to take this route, and many people see that as a massive problem.

It's completely understandable that tourists would want to see the Arctic, one the Earth's last great frontiers, but the relatively low amount of tourism is precisely why it retains that title. The only reason why such a voyage is even possible is because of significant reductions in sea ice, reductions brought about by global warming. In this regard, travel companies are effectively capitalising on the ruin of the planet.

Cruise ships themselves leave massive carbon footprints. The world's largest one, Harmony of the Seas, burns approximately 12,520 litres of highly pollutant diesel fuel every hour when it's at full power. That's the extreme end of the spectrum, granted, but the figures for smaller ships are no less comforting.

That's not the only issue, though. The arctic is peppered with small, insular communities of indigenous locals. Contact with more modernised civilisation has been something of a double-edged sword for these people, it's brought them more advanced means to cope with their punishing surroundings, but it has also fractured their society in many ways. One of the stopping points on the Crystal Serenity's route is Ulukhaktok, a minuscule Inuit community which typically has very limited contact with outsiders. It's hard to imagine any way in which some 1,700 gawping tourists and cruise ship staffers will be beneficial for them.

The company behind the Serenity have made it clear that the trip will have the smallest environmental impact possible for a ship that size - tight regulations on waste, low sulphur fuel and the guidance of British icebreaker the RSS Ernest Shackleton - but the Serenity is not the beginning and end of the issue. The real concern is that it will cause a ripple effect, with more and more large commercial ships travelling along Arctic routes as more sea ice melts off and makes it easier to do so.

The cumulative effect of this could be devastating, not just for the stability of the already fragile networks of polar ice, but for the wildlife. Cruise ship traffic is provably dangerous for many species of marine animals, particularly mammals which need to surface for air. The bulk of the whales which live in the Arctic aren't necessarily endangered, but a significant increase in shipping traffic could easily change all that.

The fact of the matter is that we won't know how far reaching the environmental impact of increased Arctic shipping traffic will be, but there are so many factors to be taken into consideration, from seismic disturbances to littering to how industrial proximity could disrupt migratory routes. Ironically, whale watching is half the reason why many people might be attracted to the idea of an Arctic cruise at all, but in order to get the best experience, the ships would have to travel dangerously close to calving and feeding areas, where the whales are most at risk.

Img via
Sadly, it seems like these environmental concerns are doing little to curtail the growth of this controversial industry. Despite many Arctic experts warning them of the risks (one of whom had actually been invited to speak on the Serenity, but declined), Crystal are already planning a second voyage in 2017, and they're even building a 'purpose built polar-class mega-yacht', the first of its kind, in order to make more regular commercial Arctic trips.

Ultimately it falls under the umbrella of all tourism's key environmental issue - the further you travel, the more damage you do. Airline pollution is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and more affordable rates are only making it worse, as is the increasing demand for travel to more remote areas with reputations for natural beauty, such as the Galapagos Islands.

With the Arctic though, this comes twinned with another issue, one which strikes a bit closer to home: if something goes wrong, you're that much further from help. As sad as it is, people need to start accepting this basic truth - it's fine to admire the great frontiers of the world, but you need to do it from a distance.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.