AECO and Arctic tourism deeper in crisis | Polarjournal
Almost like poking in the fog: Expedition tour operators to the Arctic have been surprised by the length of the ban, especially in Canada. Even if the government offers a straw by promising a continuous reassessment of the situation, planning the Arctic season in this way is hardly feasible. Picture: Michael Wenger

Since February 2020, the small Sars-CoV-2 virus has had a firm grip on the world. The measures that governments have taken to protect the population in the particularly remote Arctic regions have been effective so far , at least in Canada, Greenland and Svalbard. However, while Greenland can decide independently on its borders, the other two regions are dependent on the decisions of the central governments. And they both came out in favor of extending the bans on tourist visits last week. This has given the already hard-hit expedition cruise industry another nudge towards an existential crisis. Especially the Assosciation of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators AECO suffers from the situation.

The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators AECO has been left with virtually no revenue since the pandemic began. This is because it generates its income through membership fees, which in turn are calculated on the basis of the number of passengers carried by members within the AECO territories. If these members are unable to travel, the contributions will also cease. And travel is still not in the cards with the announcements in Canada and Norway. Support of AECO by the members is also only possible to a small extent. “Our members are doing their best. But they are also struggling very hard at the moment,” writes Frigg Jørgensen in an email to PolarJournal. “We have explored many means of getting funding and we have obtained funding for some projects, such as our Clean Seas campaign, some research projects, and an oil spill response project,” said AECO’s executive director, describing her efforts to seek funding.

One of the most successful environmental campaigns that AECO members carry out each year is the “Clean Up Svalbard” campaign, which remove hundreds of tons of garbage, mainly plastic and nets, from the beaches. Closing AECO would severely damage the environmental concept of Arctic tourism. Bild: Julia Hager

The Norwegian state has launched numerous aid packages. But due to a complex structure of the Norwegian trade tax system and the fact that AECO is a non-profit organisation, it has so far failed in obtaining financial aid packages. “We have therefore also turned to various authorities and asked for financial support to help us through this crisis. This has so far not been successful,” Frigg Jørgensen explains further. Currently, there are still reserves and project funding available and some of AECO’s members have also provided financial support. But with announcements from the Canadian and Norwegian governments last week, the prospects for an Arctic season don’t look good. This results in further revenue losses by AECO members and AECO itself, with bankruptcy looming. The loss of AECO would be a hard blow to the entire industry. After all, in recent years the organization has set standards for more sustainable, gentler expedition tourism. And the loss would also come at the worst possible time, as more and more new shipping companies want to enter the market and grab a piece of the pie.

The number of tourists who want to experience Arctic nature and wilderness in Svalbard, Greenland and Canada has risen sharply in recent years. The pandemic and protective measures have slowed things down, and it remains to be seen who will have the most staying power in the coming months when the season breaks down again. Picture: Michael Wenger

The Canadian government’s announcement that it would not allow ships with more than 12 people in the Arctic coastal regions and would ban ships with more than 100 people from Canadian waters altogether had already caused an outcry last year. The fact that these bans will now apply for another year came as a surprise even to industry experts. While an extension of the ban was already on the table, it was not considered to last until February 2022. This means that not only are the Canadian ports out of the picture, but so are the Alaska itineraries of many of the larger operators. Because with its ban the Canadian government also closes the transit of the ships through the Northwest Passage. Currently, only U.S.-flagged vessels can sail directly to ports in Alaska. All other ships must first call at a foreign port due to a U.S. law passed in 1920. And in the past, those were Canadian ports. A heavy blow, then, for those shipping companies that had hoped to reopen their operations this year. There is already talk of a “death blow to the Arctic cruise industry” behind closed doors. However, some are still fighting and want to try to change the mind of the government in Ottawa.

UPDATE: Four U.S. operators with small ships have announced they will run their Alaska trips this year. As Cruise Industry News reports, UnCruise, Alaskan Dream Cruise, American Cruise Lines and Lindblad Expeditions have confirmed their intentions to offer expedition-style voyages in Alaska. Since the companies have registered their vessels in the US, the Jones Act does not apply to them. This law states that foreign-flagged vessels may not call at two U.S. ports in succession. The companies plan to start offering their services in May. Everything would be done in compliance with Alaska laws and regulation in dealing with the pandemic. Particular hopes are pinned on the vaccines, one of the operators told Cruise Industry News. UnCruise had already tried to revive the Alaska market last year. But already on the first trip they had to turn around due to a positive COVID test and the trip had to be cancelled. The test result turned out to be wrong in retrospect. Alaska is currently experiencing declining case numbers and began its vaccination program in mid-December. According to government figures, more than 15 percent of the population had already been vaccinated with the first dose. Alaska uses both Pfizer/Biontec and Moderna mRNA vaccines. Despite this, the state is still on high pandemic alert.

Norway has also announced that it will extend its cruise regulations until May 1 as part of the COVID measures and will then reassess the situation. Again, this statement hardly allows for any real planning of the Arctic season. Thus, expedition ships with foreign guests for tours around Svalbard currently remain wishful thinking. Picture: Michael Wenger

Norway also extended its regulations regarding cruises to Svalbard and along the Norwegian coast until May 1 at the end of last week. Eventually ships with 30 persons on board (including crew) can carry out a day trip. Coastal voyages departing from Norway and calling at Norwegian ports only can also be made with vessels carrying less than 200 persons (including crew) and with a maximum passenger capacity of 50 per cent. However, due to Norway’s current border closure to foreign tourists, no Arctic travel is realistic at this time either. Currently, most operators are still waiting with cancelling trips, at least for Svalbard. But the fact is that time is running against them and even a May opening in Norway is unlikely to make up for the losses these renewed extensions will mean. Whether the small ships will be able to use their advantage of flexibility and small size again this year is still written in the yet visible stars of the polar sky at the moment.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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