Polar regions responsible tourism

More than ever, we’re aware of the vulnerability of our polar regions. Climate change is now everyday conversation and melting ice caps and stranded polar bears are headline news. The receding ice – and the rising sea levels it brings – is a global issue, threatening people and ecosystems around the world, from the equator to the poles themselves. A question hangs over the future of tourism in the Polar Regions.

But in each region, this threat has been handled quite differently. Government-free Antarctica is carefully protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which bans conflict, mining and oil prospecting while opening the frozen continent to those who wish to carry out research activities. Tourism is also strictly controlled. The Arctic, on the other hand, finds itself somewhat more vulnerable. Shared between eight countries and with a population of four million, this floating ice cap is now being drilled and mined, to the horror of both environmentalists around the world, and the Inuit populations that have lived on the edge of the ice for centuries.

In both cases, then, it is not tourism which causes the greatest harm – but the activities of governments, businesses and individuals around the world.

Wildlife & environment

To fly or not to fly?

When it comes to responsible tourism in the Polar Regions, many environmentalists would argue that the only truly green course of action is... not to go. The biggest question is: how can the flight be justified?

Both Poles are at the mercy of activities taking place thousands of miles away. Climate change is without doubt the biggest threat; temperatures have risen much faster at the poles than across the rest of the globe. Glaciers and tens of thousands of square kilometres of ice have vanished. Rising sea temperatures affect the tiniest of sea creatures such as krill – the effects are seen all the way up the food chain to seals and whales.*

But while it is true that a flight to Patagonia or Svalbard will contribute to climate change, so will every other flight you take, every car journey you make and every bit of food you eat that has travelled from a distant farm. They all contribute to the melting of polar ice, and they all, also, contribute to the altered rainfalls and drought across the world. So, it is wrong to link your your polar flights exclusively with the melting ice – and it is equally wrong to ignore all the other carbon emissions you create when thinking about your impact on Antarctica and the Arctic.

This leads us to the dilemma that every traveller to the Poles faces. There is no easy alternative to flying, and – unlike other choices we can make, there is no magic low carbon, organic or Fairtrade aviation fuel available. So the choice – quite wrongly in our view – is left to you as a personal one: to go or not to go.

*Source: British Antarctic Survey

What you can do
In the Arctic, with its people and protected areas, it’s easy to see how responsible tourism can be a force for good; travelling in national parks and wildlife reserves involves paying park fees, which support the maintenance, protection and monitoring of these wilderness areas, as well as encouraging the creation of new reserves. Visiting Inuit communities creates much-needed income and supports a disappearing way of life. And onboard lectures from Arctic experts offer an unrivalled chance to learn.

"Our guide kept bringing up issues around conservation and the awareness and perspective alone gained from those discussions will have a positive impact on the environment... People definitely went away more aware and inspired to make changes in their own lives." – Joshua Cox, from our holiday reviews

Most of our customers who have travelled to Antarctica have described themselves as deeply moved by its peace and pristine landscapes. Climate change, nature’s fragility and the urgency of protecting it suddenly hit home, and an expedition to Antarctica really can prove to be life changing. In a land where there are no local voices to shout about their cause, tourists have an important role to play as representatives and ambassadors for this final wilderness.

So if you do decide to go, perhaps the question is: what changes can you make in your life to reduce your carbon footprint and lobby for effective global carbon regulation?
Charlotte Caffrey is a marine scientist and a co-founder of our polar holiday specialist Aqua-Firma. She regularly lectures on Antarctic and Arctic voyages, and has seen the impact this journey can have on travellers: “Through the lectures and talks we are informing people – it’s an educational process. A lot of these voyages are quite life changing. We’ve had people go home and change their car to an electric car – or change their profession even. And that means a lot, to touch people in that way.”

Drilling the Arctic

The melting of the Arctic ice has knock-on environmental impact: facilitating access to oil. Some 90 billion barrels of petroleum – plus huge reserves of natural gas – are believed to lie above the Arctic Circle. Today’s rising oil costs, receding ice, and new technologies are like a red rag to a bull in a china shop for oil companies. In 2015 there were two major developments in the Arctic regarding drilling for oil and gas. After spending over $7bn and exploring for ten years, in September 2015 Shell abandoned its plans of drilling for oil in the Arctic, announcing that there weren’t enough reserves to make it worth their while. Next, in October 2015, the US government’s Obama administration blocked future prospects for oil drilling in Alaska, putting in place lease conditions that make it nigh on impossible for prospectors to even set foot there. In early 2019, the Trump administration attempted to lift the ban, but was overruled by the federal court – a change in policy which should scare anyone interested in protecting the Arctic. But like it or not, oil drilling is moving north. Greenland has put its extensive reserves up for tender. Greenland Gas and Oil commences drilling in 2020, and the country’s resources have generated plenty of interest – not least from Donald Trump, who offered to take the country off Denmark’s hands in 2019. Drilling the arctic will cause ecological havoc. The ice is cleared to make way for rigs using nuclear-powered icebreakers, whole icebergs are hauled out of the way and roads and pipelines are built. An oil spill here would spell disaster for the wildlife. WWF has more information on their website.
What you can do
Greenpeace is still calling for a global sanctuary to protect the Arctic Ocean and ban offshore drilling so it is never too late to sign their petition, or make a donation to support this campaign.

WWF also does extensive work in the Arctic, including supporting polar bear research, assisting local communities to avoid conflict with wildlife, researching the impacts of climate change and establishing protected areas. They are also members of the Arctic Council, and as such can influence decisions made by the governing nations. There are several ways you can support WWF and their work.

People & culture

Before they disappear

The indigenous peoples living around the Arctic Circle have battled for centuries to maintain their unique ways of life. Long threatened by colonisation and European diseases, then “development” and relocation, and even the spread of communism; today, Inuit culture is largely recognised and protected, and communities are permitted to hunt and occupy their ancestral lands. But now the lands themselves are facing a much bigger threat than ever before: climate change.

Over 150,000 Inuit are dependent on the ocean for fishing, whaling and hunting seals* – but without the ice cover to hold the land in place, the coast is eroding and villages are, literally, disappearing. The waters are rising around them and sea ice is flimsy – hunters can no longer drag their boats across it to the sea, leaving them stranded on the land and unable to sustain themselves and their families. In 2013 a community of Alaskan Inuit on the Bering Strait were described as the United States’ first “climate change refugees”, as their village succumbed to the rising waters.

Arctic drilling also poses a threat to subsistence lifestyles, as does the disappearance of the wildlife upon which these people depend. Most of us would cheer up at the thought of a longer, warmer summer, but suicide rates have rocketed amongst native Canadian and Greenlandic populations as the ice breaks up sooner each spring and the Arctic winter shrinks each year. Tragically, they are the ones paying the price of a high-consumption Western lifestyle, a lifestyle to which they never subscribed. We now know that the Arctic is warming at twice the global rate.

*Source: BBC

What you can do
Visiting an Inuit community is an eye-opening addition to your Arctic cruise itinerary. Baffin Island, Hudson Bay and Greenland are some of the best places to meet indigenous peoples – many of whom are actively involved in tourism, as a means of supplementing their income. Purchasing crafts and paying for tours or demonstrations can make a big difference to a struggling family.
Mary Curry, from our supplier Adventure Life, discusses meeting the Inuit:
“Art is a huge part of these cultures, and one of the easiest ways to engage with the local people is to ask about their art, whether it’s the needlepoint or carvings that they’re making. It’s a good way to interact.”

Hunting – preserving culture or preserving species?

In some countries, polar bear hunting is still legal for native people. The allocation of hunting permits is based on regular monitoring of the populations, and quotas are then assigned to the communities. The hunting of polar bear – as well as of other species, including seals and whales – is a strong tradition for native populations, and every part of the animal is used – from the fur to the meat and the fat.
In Canada, communities are also permitted to sell on their quotas to non-native hunters. Permits are sold as part of a package – including several days’ food, transport and lodging – and the hunter must be accompanied by a native guide. With the experience costing tens of thousands of dollars, this is no small business for the Inuit, and many have come to depend on the income from hunters to remain in their ancestral lands, even as the sea ice melts and subsistence hunting becomes tougher. Although the hides are usually bagged by the hunters, the Inuit will still eat and preserve all the meat. Hunting also allows for the management of the polar bear populations which are straying ever closer to inhabited areas.

What you can do
We don’t advocate trophy hunting for tourists, but visitors should be aware that it is a traditional way of life here – and one which has been sustainable for thousands of years. As a visitor to an Inuit community, you should travel with an open mind, and engage with your hosts to learn more about subsistence living in the Arctic.
Mary Curry, from our supplier Adventure Life, shares her responsible travel advice for people visiting local communities in Canada: “For some people it can be very upsetting to see a skinned polar bear or a skull hanging up on someone’s doorstep – but that’s a common sight. Hunting wildlife that we would consider to be borderline endangered is legal by native people in some of these regions – narwhal, polar bear, even bowhead whales. So it’s important that people are aware that this is a subsistence culture and that hunting is very much key to their life.”

Responsible tourism tips

Keep your distance from the wildlife, including seals, penguins and other birds. However, the animals themselves aren’t aware of these regulations, and are also not afraid of humans. If you position yourself quietly, they may well approach you, which is fine. However, you must never touch, feed or obstruct them or use flash photography, and noise should be kept to a minimum. Contamination by “alien matter” is a real threat to fragile ecosystems, in the form of seeds, plants and foreign bacteria. In Antarctica, boats will provide special boots which must be worn during shore visits, which are disinfected between each excursion to reduce the chances of contamination. To support polar research, including monitoring climate change, you can make a donation to the Scott Polar Research Institute. Most vessels have expert guides onboard – wildlife photographers and filmmakers, divers, geologists, polar scientists, historians and geographers. These are an unbelievable source of information – travellers are advised to make the most of it! Norway is one of just three countries which still allows commercial whaling, contravening the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling moratorium. Whale meat is still served across Norway, including Svalbard. In Greenland, whale hunting is permitted as a subsistence practice by indigenous whalers. However, it’s now being sold to tourists – increasing demand. We do not recommend eating whale meat as it is a direct threat to whale species. As always, be respectful of any communities you visit. You may not like the idea of hunting seals, whales or polar bears for subsistence purposes – but keep an open mind, and be prepared to learn from your Arctic hosts. Always ask permission before taking pictures. Purchasing Inuit crafts and taking tours with local guides contributes to local income and livelihoods– and helps people remain in these isolated rural areas rather than migrating to the cities. There are several natural parks, designated wilderness areas and wildlife refuges in the Arctic – each will have its own set of visitor guidelines. Be sure to familiarise yourself with these – your guide will also advise on behaviour within the park. In general, take nothing with you, leave nothing behind and keep to designated trails. The Polar Regions have an exceptionally short season for regeneration each year – even the most minor damage to vegetation and lichen can take decades to recover from. As tour operators often work in both the Antarctic and the Arctic (the same vessels are used as the season alternates), many in both destinations are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). This promotes good practices, training and environmental protection – so we highly recommend travelling with an operator who belongs to IAATO. You can download their visitor guidelines for more information.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Anders Jildén] [To fly or not to fly?: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] [Drilling the Arctic: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement BSEE] [Hunting – preserving culture or preserving species?: Polar Cruises]