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Hot topic: can travel to the Arctic ever be sustainable?

With the Arctic warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, can travel to the region ever be sustainable? Select tours to Svalbard suggest small group trips may be a force for good.

People kayaking across an iceberg filled glacial lagoon.

Photograph by AWL Images
Published 28 Dec 2021, 06:06 GMT

At 78 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, Svalbard is the final frontier before the North Pole, some 650 miles of pack ice away. The archipelago is raw, elemental and brutally beautiful. By nature, it invites adventure: hiking, kayaking, camping, ski touring, dog sledding and snowmobiling. Go in search of polar bears and the Northern Lights, and you’ll find it works its magic on you in far more subtle and profound ways: the blue silence of the night; the sense-startling cold; the feeling of being alone on the frozen tundra, with mountains rearing up like great icy waves; and the sight of a wild reindeer, walrus or fleeting Arctic fox.  

A trip to the Arctic has the power to change you and make you view the world differently. But with a 2021 report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme suggesting the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, the sea ice rapidly melting and wildlife losing habitat as a consequence, should we be there at all? 

Can travel to the Arctic be sustainable?

While critics point to the ‘last-chance tourism’ boom in big cruise liners, which pollute heavily and give back very little, other industry experts are adamant that travel to places like Svalbard can be a force for good, providing you make the right choices. Choose a small boat if cruising, they say, and one that actively supports local conservation and communities.  

“Unlike Antarctica, there’s no Arctic treaty, and the region’s vulnerability to exploitation is rising as its ice recedes. But tourism can offer a disincentive to threats like mining,” says Justin Francis, founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, which offers small-ship, environmentally sound, wildlife-focused cruises around Svalbard’s main inhabited island, Spitsbergen. “Approached responsibly, travel here provides an unrivalled learning opportunity that transforms visitors into campaigners for the region’s protection and, crucially, an economic incentive for regional preservation. The key is sustainable numbers that contribute significant value.”

Are there low-impact small cruises?

Run by passionate conservationists, Secret Atlas has gone even further, with leave-no-trace expedition cruises on vessels carrying just 12 passengers. The environment-focused company arranges tree-planting schemes and gives back to communities through actions like Arctic beach clean-ups.

“Our 15-day Svalbard Pioneer cruise circumnavigates Spitsbergen, venturing far out to visit the Austfonna ice cap and lots of rarely visited places with a veteran expedition leader,” enthuses co-founder Andy Marsh. “We often see wildlife like polar bears, whales, walruses, seals, reindeer, Arctic foxes and an abundance of birds.”

Andy believes travel companies can be a force for good. “When you see a pristine natural environment, you realise what’s at stake and why it needs protection. Our voyages help to spread a very important environmental message, encouraging people to stand up and protect the Arctic,” he says.

Sustainable Svalbard 

According to Sustainable Tourism Svalbard project manager Sara Borchgrevink Madsen, the future of responsible travel in the Arctic involves encouraging travellers to choose environmentally certified tour operators that care about conservation and community. She emphasises the benefits of visiting during the low season (winter), and giving preference to non-motorised, reduced-footprint activities like skiing and dog sledding, offered by companies like Green Dog, Basecamp Explorer and Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions.

“It’s about making wise environmental choices,” says Sara. “We encourage people to travel less and stay longer, and use existing infrastructure near the town of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen. Allow time to really embrace Svalbard, discover its stillness and be humbled by nature.”

Environmentalists say time is running out for the Arctic. Some damage is irreversible, but long-term strategies for sustainable tourism could help to protect this precious region for many generations to come. Here David Attenborough’s words ring true: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they’ve never experienced.”

Published in the Winter Sports guide 2021, distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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