Responsible tourism in the Arctic

When it comes to environmental concerns, the Arctic often sits front and center for many people. No longer perceived as a pristine wilderness, it’s now right up there with the razed rainforests in terms of precariousness: images abound of chunks of Greenland melting into the sea, tundra melting under people’s homes, the USA, Canada, Russia and Norway racing to drain the oil, and lonely polar bears floating out into the ocean on ever-shrinking fragments of ice.

But there are still actions we can take to help the Arctic – especially as tourists exploring this vast and fragile land. Read our guide to responsible tourism in the Arctic to discover the challenges this region faces and how tourism can be – and, in many places, already is – a force for positive change.

Arctic wildlife & environment

You can actually see the decrease in ice happening and people have to understand that the ice is changing.

Climate change in the Arctic

Arctic temperatures are increasing at up to seven times the global average, and the warming oceans have melted so much of the once-permanent sea ice that the National Geographic drastically redrew their Atlas of the World to reflect the receding polar ice cap.

“The changes are more visible in the Arctic,” says Charlotte Caffrey, expedition leader at our Arctic specialists Aqua-Firma. “You can actually see the decrease in ice happening and people have to understand that the ice is changing. I go out there on the same week every year, and every year has been completely different in terms of the ice coming down from the north and how it blocks areas, and temperatures and weather and everything. Even the wildlife that you see is different every year.”

With melting ice comes a panoply of consequences: eroding coastlines, Arctic communities in crisis, thawing permafrost (an effective carbon store), and forest and tundra wildfires.

Summer sea ice is down by 43 percent since 1979, endangering the polar bears, narwhals and walruses that rely on it. Already, fish are changing their routes, affecting hunting grounds for people and wildlife, and orcas are heading further north for solid ice. Caribou (reindeer) have had mixed fortunes. In Svalbard, they’ve prospered in warmer summers, but starved through icing events caused by warmer winter temperatures, when they struggle to get to the tasty lichen underneath. There’s concern that Arctic wildlife will not adapt quickly enough to their rapidly changing environments.

Melting ice also affects the world beyond the Arctic, causing rising sea levels, changing air temperatures and more extreme weather. Many of these consequences are already happening and are already irreversible.

With such a bleak outlook, it’s easy to question the ethics of flying to the Arctic as a tourist. But flying here contributes just as much to the climate crisis as flying to any other far-flung place does.
You feel like you’ve grown some at the end of the trip. You’ve actually changed.
– Simon Rowland, from our partner Wildfoot Travel
Tourism in the Arctic can be a force for good. Traveling 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 protected areas. Visiting remote communities brings in much-needed income and supports disappearing ways of life. And lectures from polar experts on Arctic cruises offer an unrivalled chance to learn, creating a ship full of ambassadors who will return home to spread the word about the disappearing Arctic.

“You feel like you’ve grown some at the end of the trip,” says Simon Rowland, managing director of our Arctic wildlife expedition experts Wildfoot Travel. “You’ve actually changed. It encourages respect for the environment for sure. I remember going on my first trip in the early 2000s, coming back and being completely aware of recycling, not leaving a footprint, respecting wildlife and nature. A trip like this educates people – perhaps more than any other. It’s etched in your memory for the rest of your life.”

How to help the Arctic

    Go on an Arctic cruise that supports people and wildlife. You might set off with the aim to see the inimitable polar bear, but you’ll end up learning and being inspired by a hundred other species and landscapes. It’s easy to feel powerless when faced with the immensity of the climate crisis. However, there are many practical tips for slowing climate change that we can start on right now. Read our travel tips for tackling the climate crisis or watch our video below. Our best advice to travelers is to fly less, stay longer and make every vacation count. And of course, the longer you’re in the Arctic, the more chance you have of seeing wildlife and the reaches of the far north that few people have the privilege of seeing.

Liquid gold: is drilling for oil in the Arctic bad?

In one word: yes. The use of nuclear icebreakers, the hauling of icebergs to make way for rigs, seismic blasting, and the creation of roads and pipelines can all cause havoc in the Arctic ecosystem and the people who rely on it – not to mention the climate impacts of yet more fuel being burned.

The melting of the ice in the Arctic has another big impact: facilitating access to oil. Some 160 billion barrels of oil, plus huge reserves of natural gas, are believed to lie in the wider Arctic region, the vast majority of this offshore. Drilling attempts in the 1970s and 1980s proved to be costly, complex and inefficient – but rising oil costs and receding ice left oil companies lusting for more.

In the USA, oil drilling above the Arctic Circle seems to be as much about politics as it is about business. In 2015, the Obama administration blocked future prospects for oil drilling in Alaska, putting in place lease conditions that were supposed to make it impossible for prospectors to even set foot there. Just three years later, the Trump administration approved drilling in pristine waters 10km offshore and close to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest such refuge in the country. Then in 2021, the Biden administration reviewed Trump-era oil leases, temporarily halting sales – although environmentalists say that the government must go further and ban drilling completely.
Oil drilling above the Arctic Circle seems to be as much about politics as it is about business.
Oil companies also have a long history of spills, and in the Arctic oil spills are often catastrophic for wildlife above and below the ice. Clean-up operations are often hampered by harsh conditions and the inaccessibility of rigs, pipes and boats.

Alaska was the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when a tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989. Over 10 million gallons of oil were spilled into the water, in one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters to date. In Russia, over 17,000 spills or leaks were reported yearly – that’s about one every 30 mins – with most blamed on aging pipes. Meanwhile, Norway is making inroads into the Barents Sea, one of the most accessible and regularly ice-free regions of the Arctic, where up to 17 billion barrels of oil may lie.

Greenpeace’s longstanding Save the Arctic campaign has had an extraordinary impact on creating awareness about the environmental impact of drilling for oil. An Inuit community on Canada’s Baffin Island partnered with Greenpeace to campaign against oil exploration in the waters in front of their village, and in 2017 they won their long battle to end seismic testing in the area. And Greenland – a country that’s experienced a 22cm seawater level rise since 1880 – banned all future oil explorations in 2021.

That said, many years it seems that as soon as one concession is halted, another opens up.

How to help the Arctic

    The inexhaustible Greenpeace runs ongoing campaigns and protests to protect the Arctic and halt further drilling and exploration. 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 – start by signing up to the Circle magazine. If you do travel to the Arctic, choose a trip that actively supports conservation through their own programmes or support of projects in the region. Some regions of the Arctic are better protected than others.

Rodney Russ, founder and expedition leader of our partner Heritage Expeditions, says: “As biologists and ornithologists, we are intimately aware of the many issues that confront wildlife and their habitats, the world’s oceans and isolated ethnic groups. We aim to actively contribute to the conservation of the places we visit.”

“Conservation in Eastern Russia is severely underfunded,” adds colleague Cassia Jackson. “The Far East of Russia is nine time zones away from Moscow, and historically has often been ignored. We directly contribute to local conservation in this part of the world – for example, partnering with conservation agencies Birds Russia, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Birdlife International.”

People & culture

The Indigenous Peoples living around the Arctic Circle have battled for centuries to maintain their unique ways of life. Historically, colonisation has brought with it violence, disease, relocation and residential schools that have destroyed and threatened traditional life from Canada to Siberia.

Today, Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic are largely recognised and protected, and communities are permitted to hunt, fish and occupy their ancestral lands. But now the lands themselves are facing a bigger threat than ever before: the climate crisis.

How does climate change affect Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic?

Many Arctic communities are dependent on the ocean for fishing, whaling and hunting seals. Around two thirds of adults in some Canadian Inuit communities harvest and hunt “country food”, while in Greenland, even those with less traditional ways of life will still take their sled dogs and kayaks out to hunt seal, walrus and reindeer, using the meat, skin and bones of their catch.

However, without ice cover to hold the land in place, the coast is eroding and villages are quite 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. On the edge of the Bering Strait, an Alaskan Inuit community has been described as the USA’s first climate change refugees as their village succumbs to the rising waters.

Arctic drilling also poses a threat to subsistence living, as does the increasingly unpredictable movements of fish, caribou, birds, polar bears and whales upon which people depend. They are the ones paying the price of a high-consumption lifestyle that they never subscribed to.

What you can do

    Baffin Island, Chukotka 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. If you visit an inhabited area, spend time with local communities and spend your money in their restaurants, museums and craft shops. A damaged Arctic harms everyone – but these communities really are on the frontline, as their homes, food sources and culture are at risk.

Hunting in the Arctic: preserving culture vs preserving wildlife

Most polar bear hunting was outlawed in 1973, but in some countries, particularly Canada, hunting by Inuit communities is still legal. The allocation of hunting permits is based on regular monitoring of the populations, and quotas are then assigned to the communities through a system of tags which are given to the hunters.

As controversial as this may sound, polar bear hunting (as well as the hunting of other species, including seals and whales) is a strong tradition for people who live in the Arctic. Every part of the bear is used – from the fur to the meat and the fat – and the Inuit know which bears are best to cull without damaging breeding populations. Hunters can sell on the pelts, which can reach $3,000-$4,000 – a hugely important source of income in these remote communities. And there are also schemes where they can supply the liver, pieces of fur and other body parts to researchers to develop knowledge and understanding of the bears.

In Canada, communities are also permitted to sell on their quotas to hunters from elsewhere. Permits are sold as part of a package including several days’ food, transport and lodging, and the hunter must be accompanied by a local guide. With the package costing anywhere from $25,000 to $80,000, this is no small business for the Inuit, and many have come to depend on the income from hunters to remain in their Arctic villages 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.

Allowing polar bears to be killed by hunters from outside Inuit communities is highly controversial, but given the Inuit dependence on the meat, the bears would be killed anyway. Some have suggested that selling the permits can result in fewer bears being killed, as trophy hunters are not as successful as local hunters. Others argue that trophy hunters are there for just that – the trophy – and that killing off the biggest bears, who are best equipped to survive their increasingly challenging landscapes, could endanger stable populations.

While hunting may appear to be the antithesis of conservation, the current laws in Canada allow for sustainable hunting and the preservation of Inuit rights and culture. While polar bears are the poster child of climate change, and their numbers are declining, global figures sometimes don’t represent what is happening at a local level. In Canada’s central Arctic, for example, polar bear numbers are the highest they have been for decades.

Polar bear hunting is not legal in the USA, by Alaska Natives or any other communities; however, trophy hunters can cross the border and hunt bears in Arctic Canada. In 2008, the USA passed a law preventing the import of polar bear artefacts – including skins and skulls. While the intention was good, the law meant that US hunters did not want to hunt bears as they could not bring their bounty home. This had devastating impacts on Inuit communities, as guiding a hunt could allow a hunter to support their extended family. In 2016, following pressure from Inuit campaigners, the ban was overturned.

What you can do

    While we don’t advocate hunting as a tourist, visitors to Arctic regions should be aware that it is a traditional way of life – and one which has been sustainable for thousands of years. As a visitor to an Inuit community, the best thing you can do is travel with an open mind and engage with your hosts to learn more about subsistence living in the Arctic.

How does tourism affect the Arctic?

Tourism can have many positive effects on the Arctic – when done well. Irresponsible tourism, however, is another story.

Tourist numbers in the Arctic have steadily increased as ice breaks up more often and sea routes become more reachable. Instead of expedition ships, gigantic cruise ships can now steam through icy crossings like the once-inaccessible Northwest Passage, releasing over a thousand passengers at a time on tiny Arctic communities and fragile tundra. More ships mean more dumped waste. (Yes, big cruise ships do indeed dump fuel, sewage and food waste into the ocean.) With little infrastructure in the high north, big groups of hikers or wildlife watchers are in danger of trampling thin vegetation cover that is crawlingly slow to recover.

Unlike pole opposite Antarctica, there are few multilateral tourism controls in the Arctic. The region is governed by eight different nations with competing interests and even more interest in cashing in on growing tourist numbers.

How can tourism be responsible in the Arctic?

We’ve highlighted some ways tourism can have a positive impact on the Arctic – from economically supporting remote communities and funding conservation projects to inspiring visitors to make lifestyle changes that can help slow the climate change.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to us as tourists to choose a responsible tour to the Arctic – well-managed trips that look to, and care deeply for, the long-term future of the Arctic. Vast swathes of the Arctic remain untouched by tourism and, as some of the first foreign tourists in newly defrosting lands, we must handle them with care.

Booking with a responsible Arctic tour operator takes many of those concerns out of your hands. Our partners hire polar guides who’ll show you how to thoughtfully traverse tundra and work with wildlife guides who will keep their distance to avoid causing stress to whales and walruses. Ships are small and run on the greenest possible fuel, and they champion community-powered tourism enterprises, such as those run by the Sámi of Sápmi (Lapland). Rather than taking things off the table, these Arctic tours add experiences that make your trip enormously memorable.

How to help the Arctic:
Responsible tourism tips

Stick to small ship cruises. Read all about the whys, whats and wherefores on our responsible small ship cruises guide. As many Arctic operators also work in the Antarctic (the same vessels are used as the season alternates), many operators are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). This promotes good practices, training and environmental protection – so we highly recommend traveling with an operator that belongs to IAATO. There are several natural parks, designated wilderness areas and wildlife refuges in the Arctic, and 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 Arctic has an exceptionally short season for regeneration each year, so even the most minor damage to vegetation and lichen can take decades to recover from. Request a cruise that includes lectures and onboard programmes by scientists and researchers to make the most of your time in the Arctic, educating you about local wildlife, culture, climate change and conservation. Norway is one of just three countries which still allows commercial whaling, contravening the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling moratorium. Up to 1,200 minke whales are hunted each year, even though a record low of two percent of Norwegians eat whale meat regularly. In Greenland, whale hunting is permitted as a subsistence practice by Greenlandic Inuit whalers. However, it’s now being sold to tourists, increasing demand. Do not eat whale meat as a tourist – it’s a direct threat to whale species. Avoid helicopter rides to bird colonies, as the noise disturbs nesting birds and can separate fledglings from their parents. The term “Eskimo” is largely considered to be outdated and offensive. Broadly speaking, “Inuit” is the preferred term, especially in Canada and Greenland. However, some Indigenous Alaskan and Siberian communities – particularly the Yupik – still refer to themselves as Eskimo. If in doubt, ask your guide. 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. Buy crafts and take tours with local guides. It all contributes to local income and livelihoods, and helps people remain in these isolated rural areas rather than migrating to the cities. In Greenland, the Inuit have a quota for hunting walrus as they eat the meat and use the skins and fat. They also carve the tusks as pieces of art. If you buy any crafts made from walrus, you can obtain a CITES certificate to demonstrate that it was sustainably hunted by Inuit populations, allowing you to take it back to your home country. The best wildlife guides keep a respectful distance from Arctic critters to save them from stress. (And a respectful distance away from curious polar bears to save you stress.) Don’t urge guides to get closer to wildlife so you can take a better picture.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: steve estvanik] [Climate change in the Arctic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] [Polar bear: Annie Spratt] [Oil drilling platform: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement BSEE] [Inuit hunting: Polar Cruises]