Responsible tourism in the Arctic

When it comes to environmental concerns, the Arctic has crept up in many people’s consciousness in the past few years. No longer perceived as an untouched 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, Alaska and Russia racing to drain the oil, and lonely polar bears floating out into the ocean on ever-shrinking fragments of ice. Arctic temperatures are increasing at almost twice the global average, and the warming oceans have melted so much of the once-permanent sea ice that, in 2014, National Geographic drastically redrew their Atlas of the World to reflect the receding polar ice cap.

With such a bleak outlook, it’s easy to question the ethics of flying to the Arctic at all. But flying to the Arctic contributes just as much to global warming as flying to any other destination does. In fact, tourism here 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 Inuit communities brings in much needed income and supports a disappearing way of life. And onboard lectures from polar experts offer an unrivalled chance to learn, creating a shipful of ambassadors who will return home to spread the word about the disappearing Arctic.

Arctic wildlife & environment

"The changes are more visible in the Arctic. 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.” – Charlotte Caffrey, from our supplier Aqua Firma

Drilling for oil in the Arctic

The melting of the ice is having another knock-on environmental impact: facilitating access to oil. Some 90 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 80s proved to be costly, complex and inefficient – but rising oil costs and receding ice were left oil companies lusting for more.

The likelihood of drilling being carried out above the Arctic Circle seems to be as much about politics as it is about business. In 2015, for example, the US government’s 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. The oil company involved, Hilcorp, already has a history of leaks – the largest of which spilled over 4,000 gallons of oil in a Louisiana lake. Alaska, meanwhile, was the site of the Exxon Valdez Oil spill, when a tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1980. 10.8 million gallons of oil were spilled into the water, in one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters to date.

Greenpeace’s longstanding Save the Arctic campaign has had an extraordinary impact on creating awareness about the environmental impact of drilling for oil, but it seems that when one concession is halted, another opens up. An Inuit community in 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. But 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. Politics have again played a role in Arctic Russia, where US sanctions have slowed Russia’s oil explorations. Greenland however, plans to auction off its onshore oil blocks in 2021. With no international protections in place, unlike in Antarctica, damage to this fragile region looks highly likely.

The use of nuclear icebreakers, the hauling of icebergs to make way for rigs, seismic blasting, and the creation of roads and pipelines all have the potential to cause havoc in the Arctic ecosystem – not to mention the climate impacts of yet more fuel being burned. And of course, an Arctic oil spill could be catastrophic for wildlife above and below the ice, with cleanup operations hampered by the rig’s inaccessibility and harsh conditions. WWF has more information on their website.

What you can do
The inexhaustible Greenpeace runs ongoing campaigns and protests to protect the Arctic and halt further drilling and exploration. You can donate to their Save the Arctic campaign and sign up to receive updates.

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.

Finally, if you do travel to the Arctic, choose a cruise that actively supports conservation through their own programmes or support of projects in the region. If you visit an inhabited area, such as Baffin Island, Chukotka or parts of eastern Greenland, spend time with local communities and spend your money in their restaurants, museums and craft shops to help support them. A damaged Arctic harms everyone – but these communities really are on the frontline, as their homes, food sources and culture are at risk.

People & culture

Before they disappear

The indigenous peoples living around the Arctic Circle have battled for centuries to maintain their unique ways of life. Historically, colonisation and European diseases, 'civilisation' and relocation, and even the spread of communism 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 much bigger threat than ever before: climate change.

Many traditional 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 what is termed 'country food', while in Greenland, even those Inuit with more modern ways of life will still take their sled dogs and kayaks out to hunt seal, walrus and reindeer - using their meat, skin and bones. However, without 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. As Greenland's hunters bring home less meat to feed the family, their wives take up paid work - and traditional skills begin to be forgotten. On the edge of the Bering Strait, a community of Alaskan Inuit has been described as the United States’ first 'climate change refugees' as their village succumbs 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 the high-consumption Western lifestyle that they have never subscribed to.

What you can do
Visiting an Inuit community is an eye-opening addition to your Arctic cruise itinerary. 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. 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 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.

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 native Arctic peoples. 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. Inuit hunters can sell on the pelts, which can reach $3,000 to $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.

However, 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 package costing anywhere from $35,000 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, 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. Allowing polar bears to be killed by non native hunters is highly controversial, but given the Inuit's dependence on the meat, the bears would be killed anyway. Some have even suggested that selling the permits can result in fewer bears being killed, as trophy hunters are not as successful as native hunters.

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 don't represent what is happening at a local level, In the Canadian province of Labrador, for example, polar bear numbers are the highest they have been for decades.

Polar bear hunting is not legal in the US, by native Alaskans or any other communities; however, trophy hunters can cross the border and hunt bears in Arctic Canada.  In 2008, the US 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. In 206, 153 bears were killed by trophy hunters; by 2011 this had fallen to 26, with devastating impacts on Inuit communities. Guiding a hunt could allow a hunter to support his 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 these 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.

Responsible tourism tips

Norway Is one of just three countries which still allows commercial whaling, contravening the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling moratorium. Up to 1,000 Minke whales are hunted each year, and 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. 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 native 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 bear for subsistence purposes – but keep an open mind, and be prepared to learn from your Arctic hosts. Always ask permission before taking pictures. Purchasing 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. 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 native populations, allowing you to take it back to your home country. 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 Arctic has an exceptionally short season for regeneration each year – even the most minor damage to vegetation and lichen can take decades to recover from. Some regions of the Arctic are better protected than others. Cassia Jackson, of our supplier Heritage Expeditions, explains more: “Conservation in the Russian Far East is severely underfunded. The Far East of Russia is nine time zones away from Moscow, and historically has often been ignored. Heritage Expeditions directly contributes to local conservation in this part of the world. An example of this is our partnership with conservation agencies: Birds Russia, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Birdlife International.” 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 who belongs to IAATO. 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.
Rodney Russ is the founder of our supplier Heritage Expeditions, as well as an expedition leader: “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.”
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: steve estvanik] [Ice melt: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] [Inuit hunting: Polar Cruises]