The Polar Retrospective – Arctic tourism like hiking in the polar night | Polarjournal
The Arctic night sky and the region are not always lit up by auroras. Often enough, the only light available comes from lamps, to light the way ahead. It then depends on the person’s view as to which way to go. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

The polar review looks back at events of the past week that are related to the Arctic and Antarctic and focuses on one or more aspects. Last week, it was Arctic tourism, which moved into the focus of discussion between industry, politics and science. Thereby it becomes apparent that the search for solutions seems a bit like hiking in the polar night.

According to the lore of Arctic peoples, Aurora Borealis are, among other things, spirits that often light the way for the living. However, the natural phenomenon is not always visible, and lamps are all that is left in the dark of the polar night to help people find their way and choose a direction. It seems logical that, if a group is traveling, its members should reach a consensus on the direction to take in order to reach their destination.

This symbolic description can be applied to the current discussion surrounding tourism in the Arctic. The goal or destination is the same for all stakeholders: a type of tourism in the Arctic that does no harm to nature or society, but at the same time is economically viable and also supports science in its efforts to better study millions of square kilometers of ocean, tundra, glaciers and mountains with everything and everyone living there.

Is “science tourism” greenwashing or a genuine aid to research?

However, an article published last week on the Norwegian news portal High North News illustrates that the lights of the various stakeholders from industry, science and politics are pointing in different directions. The article is a response from the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators AECO to an article published ten days earlier in the same news portal. According to the statement of a scientist in the article, ship operators would be engaging in so-called “greenwashing” by taking scientists on board who use such trips to collect data in areas that are otherwise difficult to access. The scientist also states that the cost-benefit ratio is not positive.

It goes without saying that AECO, as an industry representative, could not stand idly with such statements. Last week’s response article points out the successful cooperation with various organizations and research institutions and the data that has led to a better understanding of various processes in the Arctic. In addition, it states that all AECO members have committed themselves to following strict rules to protect nature and the environment and to minimize their impact on the sensitive Arctic environment. They welcome the discussion about improvements, but want to be included in the discussion, the AECO article concludes.

Politics both hinders and supports Arctic tourism

However, AECO’s (and other industry representatives’) desire to be more involved in the discussion is met with a certain mistrust on the part of the scientific community and policymakers. This mistrust has been fueled not least by rule violations and accidents, which play into the hands of critics. Furthermore, policymakers also pursue their own agenda in terms of tourism and weigh science and tourism differently. For example, AECO and other tourism representatives in Svalbard feel that they were ignored in the Norwegian government’s strategy paper on Arctic tourism. The industry claims that although they sought dialogue and made suggestions, they were not listened to in the end and only scientific recommendations were followed.

And in Greenland too, a debate is raging between parties when it comes to sustainable tourism. Various laws to impose strict rules for protection are currently being discussed and some members of the government have more or less directly expressed their disapproval and disbelief at tourism trips to the remote fjords of Greenland in the past. However, their arguments do not follow the scientific line taken by their colleagues in Norway, but instead focus on the economic impact of disrupting the important marine mammal and fish populations, referring to observations made by local fishermen and hunters rather than to scientific data. The latter attribute the decline in whales, seals and fish primarily to the effects of climate change. Yet ministers like Kalistat Lund are not taking any notice of this and are questioning Arctic (scientific) tourism. In spite of this, the government in Nuuk is promoting the expansion of airports in order to cope with the increasing number of tourists and is also creating economic incentives to promote Greenland as a tourist destination.

Overall, last week’s article shows how far apart the views of the different stakeholders in Arctic tourism are, or rather how the lights are pointing in different directions. Maybe a little help from above in the shape of auroras is neede to break through the darkness and light the way for the parties.

Dr. Michael Wenger, Polar Journal AG

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