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Under the effects of global warming, the Arctic is an increasingly coveted territory. Its wild landscapes, its natural resources before inaccessible, are becoming so because of the melting of its ice. The opening of commercial maritime routes also brings tourism.

Tourism: a Strategic Geopolitical Issue

Seen for a long time as an extreme destination, the Arctic and its far-northern routes have opened up as the ice melts. Thus, tourism is gradually beginning to develop in this long-isolated region of the world. Indeed, between 2013 and 2019, a 35% increase in the number of tourist boats in the region has been noted.

Its opening to the world can generate many improvements in infrastructure and in the development of indigenous cultures. Indeed, on this territory of 8.5 million square kilometers covering Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, and the United States, live more than 500,000 inhabitants grouped into large ethnic groups. Among them are the Sámi people, the Inuit, the Nenets, the Tchouktches, the Koryaks, the Dolgans and the Evenks.

On May 20, 2021, Russia took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an important intergovernmental forum for regional diplomacy. One of the pillars of its policy is the development of tourism.

Here is one of the main points of his motivation for the presidency: ” The sustainable development of the Arctic is largely determined by the quality of human capital. The Russian Chairmanship’s main focus will be given to enhancing sustainability, resilience and viability of Arctic communities (…) Promotion of scientific, educational and cultural exchanges, tourism and contacts between peoples and regions will also be high on its agenda.”

This includes a desire to promote the heritage and history of these peoples, who are also weakened by the geo-climatic challenges in the far north.

With the melting of the ice, the renewed interest in the Arctic also shows itself through the desire for maritime exploration to observe its extraordinary wildlife. Polar bears, narwhals, beluga whales, walruses, many species shelter in the waters of the Arctic Circle. Thus, marine tourism is gradually developing with the multiplication of proposed tours. Because of the great fragility of the ecosystems, the Arctic Council is working towards a specific form of tourism: sustainable marine tourism.

To do so, it observes the melting ice via satellite images. An intergovernmental project aims to follow the trends of tourist ships and analyze their influence from coastal areas. The objective would be to be able to prepare upstream the projects of circuits at sea. As of today, 109 ships are navigating the waters, but this number should double within two years.

What to Visit in the Arctic?

The beauty of the Arctic landscape attracts many tourists. The paradox is that climate change makes it possible to contemplate these landscapes. Indeed, the melting of the ice creates new commercial and tourist routes. What should be seen as a tragedy is now seen as an opportunity to discover a new world, that of the ice.

Disko Bay is one of the top tourist destinations in Greenland, partly due to the possibility of watching humpback whales, kayaking and dog sledding. It is also the best place to observe icebergs. 

For those who wish to experience something unusual – such as the midnight sun or the polar night – the Thule region is perfect. Hosting a U.S. military base, it is necessary to have a permit to go to this breathtaking territory. It is also an opportunity to meet the people who have preserved their ancestral customs, such as hunting, wilderness camping and cooking, especially the bread called “bannock”.

Visiting Greenland rhymes with adventure! Trekking is the ideal way to discover the secrets of this remote land. The most famous itinerary is the Arctic Circle Trail, which takes between 9 and 11 days to complete.

“According to a United Nations report published in 2007, 1.5 million tourists visit the Arctic each year, compared to 1 million in the early 1990s” points out an article in JDN. This change in tourism has both negative and positive sides for the local populations. But as far as the environment is concerned, given the number of tourists, shouldn’t we ask ourselves if these experiences are as exceptional?

Northern Tourism, a Polluting Industry

However, the exponential development of tourism in the Arctic is not free of risks for the natural ecosystems. In addition to global warming, the arrival of tourist ships generates a pollution peak. Invasive species can also be introduced. Marine mammals, particularly sensitive to sound, quickly find themselves saturated with underwater noise, which represents a danger to their health.

And noise pollution does not only affect the marine environment. Indeed, before the health crisis, the small scientific village of Ny-Aalesund, home to the international scientific community (180 scientists), suddenly woke up to the rhythm of snowmobile trips. Some days the village could even welcome up to 3000 tourists. Between the trampling of protected vegetal species and the accumulation of waste, this wave of tourists is not without consequences. The arrivals of ships in the port saturate the average of CO2 and fine regional particles.

Therefore, the transition to tourism through economic development is also at the expense of a progressive increase in pollution.

On the human level, the arrival of tourists threatens the current supply systems, with small businesses running out of basic goods purchased by tourists. The arrival of ships also leads to a depletion of certain marine species near the coasts that fishermen used to harvest for a long time. And all this to the detriment of local populations.

Rethinking Arctic Tourism

The first polar tourists were Norwegians in the 19th century. But, it is in the 20th century that we witness a real tourism of the Arctic, this is partly reflected by air transport that develops. The result is mass tourism.

 The introduction of tourism in this territory is double-edged, as we have seen previously. On the one hand, the populations have greater access to essential infrastructure and more comfort.  On the other hand, this activity contributes to climate change: admiring landscapes whose vulnerability is hidden behind their beauty, is like destroying what we came to discover. Awareness of these issues is very present in the Arctic, but very often tourists are made aware through activities that weaken the environment.

Polar tourism was at first mainly intended for a certain tourist elite, but it is becoming more and more democratized and this alerts climatologists. In order to preserve the biodiversity of the polar world, certain restrictions are imposed, such as the number of people on a cruise and the time spent in the port. Moreover, many scientific camps are present in the Arctic, therefore to go to certain territories, it is necessary to obtain an authorization justifying our presence in this vulnerable space. 

This place is ideal for sightseeing, trekking, dog sledding, cycling, canoeing, etc. These activities are to be preferred to polluting activities such as cruises or motorcycle ski tours. 

In order to find the right balance, it is important to measure your impact on the environment before planning your trip to the Arctic. To do this, it is enough to learn about the ecological and cultural vulnerabilities of this destination to find alternative activities, means of travel and accommodation adapted to the challenges of this territory. And also to include a fairer tourism for the local populations. Traveling to enjoy the beauty of nature with a fair agreement with it and adopting a new look, this is also what organizing the most beautiful trip to the land of polar bears is all about.

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