From the vibrant Aurora Borealis to majestic fauna such as polar bears and narwhals, the Arctic – long perceived as an exotic tourist destination – offers a wide range of unique and breathtaking sights and experiences across the region.
Culture lovers can visit local indigenous settlements, while lovers of outdoor activities can enjoy a wide variety of pastimes, from canoeing to kayaking, dog sledging to snowshoeing, ice climbing to ice and mountain hiking, skiing to snowboarding, stand up paddling to skydiving to snowmobile tours, and much more.
Climate changes in the Arctic are making the Arctic more easily accessible, lengthening the navigation season along the Arctic seas, and increasing opportunities for cruise tourism. The number of cruise passengers to the Arctic increased from about 50,000 to 80,000 – or 60 percent – from 2005 to 2016. Popular cruise destinations include Norway’s Svalbard, Denmark’s Greenland, Russia’s Kamchatka, Franz Josef Land, and Wrangel Island, and the North Pole with the cruise season lasting largely from May to October. Much cheaper than travelling by cruise, air travel is the most common mode of travel in the Arctic.
Polar tourism offers a wide range of benefits. In the interest of supporting their industry, tourism operators are interested in supporting environmental conservation and efforts to preserve historical and cultural sites. Founded in 2003, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) works to make tourism both safe and environmentally friendly while raising awareness of local needs, promoting scientific research, and working to protect local habitats and indigenous culture.
Tourism is also increasingly becoming an important sector of the local economy by providing a potential source of income to indigenous people and encouraging entrepreneurial activities, including the production of souvenirs.
Finally, by exposing visitors to licensed guides, guides with demonstrated and specialised knowledge of the local environment, tourism helps spread knowledge about the Arctic and sensitises people to both the region’s needs and the importance of protecting its unique flora and fauna in the face of global warming, climate change, and conflicting geopolitical interests. This improved understanding of the Arctic translates to better global policy decisions with regard to fighting climate change.
Defined by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people,” ecotourism involves a number of practical approaches to visiting new places. These include, amongst others, minimising one’s impact on the local environment, learning about and showing respect for the local environment culture, showing sensitivity towards local socio-political culture, facilitating positive experiences for both visitors and hosts, offering financial support for conservation efforts, supporting local business, and otherwise empowering local people.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has delineated the following ten principles for sustainable tourism in the Arctic: 1) Making tourism and conservation compatible, 2) supporting the preservation of wilderness and biodiversity, 3) using natural resources sustainably, 4) minimising resource consumption, waste, and pollution, 5) respecting local cultures, 6) respecting historic and scientific sites, 7) ensuring that arctic communities benefit from tourism, 8) training staff to facilitate and encourage responsible tourism, 9) making sure that trips are an opportunity for tourists to learn about the Arctic, and 10) ensuring that tourists follow safety rules.