James Ruggia | March 27, 2015 3:57 PM ET
Warming Up to Arctic Tourism
Last week the world looked north, as Svalbard, an archipelago about 500 miles north of the Norwegian mainland, became the place to see the total eclipse of the sun. About a week before the eclipse, authorities on Spitsbergen (the largest of Svalbard’s islands) warned visitors that the destination’s six hotels and other forms of lodging would be sold out during the eclipse and that camping was discouraged due to frigid March temperatures and hungry polar bears.
Well, some 1,500 visitors went anyway, many of them camping. One Czech camper was pulled from his tent and mauled. He lived to tell the tale. Not so the bear.
The fact that Spitsbergen had six hotels, including a Radisson Blu, caught my attention more than the bear attack. It struck me as more natural that a predator would attack a warm meal than that Arctic Spitsbergen could sustain six hotels. In fact, overnights in Spitsbergen in 2014 went up 60 percent and the U.S. is the island’s sixth largest market after Norway, Sweden, Germany, UK and France.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the word Arctic and tourist would never even find themselves in the same sentence. American tourists used to run from snow unless they were carrying skis. The only ice one saw in post cards was in the glass of rum and coke under the palm tree.
“Initially Arctic expeditions were only attractive to ultimate adventurers, but today the range of travel to the Arctic is broad, thanks to the amount of suppliers involved in this kind of travel,” said Ron Fenska, Intrepid Travel’s vice president of sales North America.
The Arctic’s path to being a mainstream destination goes back to at least the 1980s, though it’s never been as popular as it is now. A sketch of the progression might go like this. In 1972, Princess Cruises made Seattle a home port for their Alaskan cruising, a business that multiplied exponentially. Today, Seattle’s status as a major departure point for Alaskan sailing is one of its signature industries.
The popularity of polar bear safaris from the Manitoban town of Churchill on Hudson Bay became extremely popular in the mid- to late- 1990s. Churchill developed specially designed vehicles that took tourists out to see polar bears at about the same time that Antarctic expedition cruises also became popular. Finland took Arctic tourism into a cultural dimension by promoting encounters with the Sami people of Lapland.
Norwegian Coastal Voyages has been carrying European adventure travelers into the Arctic Circle as far back as 1982. In 2007, the company began to market itself in the U.S. under its European name, Hurtigruten, just as it also began to market Arctic winter cruising here. One insider told me the U.S. industry was shocked when Hurtigruten began promoting Arctic winter travel to Americans. “We were concerned about the activities. What would people do?” Kayaking, snowmobiling, safaris, whale watching and many other activities filled that bill.
Now winter has become the preferred time to visit the Arctic for many travelers because of the Aurora Borealis. In fact, Hurtigruten just had its best February ever. You can’t see the Northern Lights in summer when the sun shines all day. The Northern Lights have become a bucket list item for many travelers. Much more recently, Iceland has seen its popularity reach a point where demand has almost exceeded capacity as it nears the million arrival mark and Greenland’s popularity has risen high enough to have its Sermilik Fjord called the “Arctic Riviera.”
In my search through Arctic travel I could find nothing more cutting edge than Intrepid Travel’s North Pole Express package that flies passengers into the North Polar Ice Basin to Barneo Ice Camp from Longyearbyen in an Antonov AN-74, a Russian aircraft that was designed to land in the Arctic. Every year, Russian scientists rebuild the ice camp and create an air strip in the process. Barneo’s location at 89°31.5′N 30°27′W is probably closer to the actual pole than Robert Peary ever got. The best estimate today is that he never got closer than 60 miles from the point of the Pole.
The rise of adventure travel has paved the way for many different permutations, none more interesting than the evolution of Arctic tourism. “There’s no question that the concern people have about the melting ice caps due to climate change is fueling their desire to see the Arctic,” said Fenska. “Those people are going out and telling people what they’ve seen and raising awareness about global warming.”
Hopefully it will do some good. A future without polar ice is a grim one. This map shows what the consequences of that scenario would be.
There’s no question that adventure tourism has been good for the business of tourism. When the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) first surveyed the worth of the global adventure market in 2009 they estimated that there was $89 billion worth of adventure travel being sold around the world. Their last survey in 2012 saw that figure escalate to $263 billion.
Adventure travel as we know it today used to be called “ecotourism,” a movement that began with explorations of rain forests in such tropical places as Costa Rica and Thailand. Today, it’s moving through terrains that only the great explorers, like Robert Peary, ever got to in the past. If it seems strange that people can find the comfort of a Radisson so high in the Arctic, remember that on his second expedition to the North Pole in 1906, Peary had a player piano installed in his expedition ship, the S.S. Roosevelt; an extravagance that no Arctic tourist enjoys today.
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