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Arctic Cruise Activity        

Arctic Cruise Activity

(by Tor Wergeland and Arnfinn Jørgensen-Dahl)


Arctic CruOne type of shipping that benefits from climate change and less ice infested waters and is likely increasingly to do so in the future is the cruise industry. It is perhaps the part of shipping that has been the least affected by the financial and economic turmoil of the last few years. Cruise ships are relatively self-contained entities. They carry their “cargo” (people) into the Arctic and bring the same “cargo” out again without having to load and reload and rely much on shore services and logistics support. Once at sea, they have a degree of operational freedom and flexibility that other types of shipping do not enjoy1 .

The modern cruise industry has only a 50-year history, starting with the Norwegian Caribbean Line in the early 1960s out of Miami. The cruise industry has since the beginning been growing with impressive growth rates in the 8-10% range each year, but is still a fairly small industry in the total leisure market, with a penetration rate of only 3% of the North American market and only 1% of the European leisure market2 

 More than 100 years before the formation of the modern cruise industry, cruise-like trips were made to the high north. The industrial revolution created wealth and with wealth came a market for luxurious passenger trips with British tourists touring the Norwegian fjords all the way up to North Cape. The first cruise route was set up by British P&O when they introduced the S/Y Ceylon in 1882 for pleasure cruising. They characterized the ship as the first ‘ocean going steam yacht of large tonnage, specially fitted for and adapted to pleasure 

cruising3 ’. The destination of this ship was the west coastal fjords of Norway and up to the North Cape. This route was later copied by Norwegian companies and is today known as Hurtigruten, operating a daily service with 7 ships from Bergen to Kirkenes.

Cruise activities in Arctic waters are predominantly made in ice-free waters in the summer season, and the main traffic areas are Northern Norway, Svalbard, Iceland and the West Coast of Greenland. The only regular cruise-like activity in ice-covered waters are trips from Murmansk to Franz Josef’s land and the North Pole made by Russian nuclear icebreakers, an activity that has been going on since 19904 . Occasionally expedition-like cruises are made both in the NWP, where 27 trips have been made in the period 1984-20044 , and in the NSR (see Figure 3.14 below).

Arctic cruises are fast growing business. The market is definitely a specialist market, although also the big cruise operators from time to time make sailings to the edge of the ice in Greenland and Svalbard.

Cruise Activity around Greenland and Svalbard

Complete data for all Arctic cruises are hard to obtain, but some indications of the development in later years can be found in data from Greenland and Svalbard. Figure 3.11 shows the development of cruise ship activities in the ports of Greenland. The number of arrivals of cruise ships in Greenland ports has increased by an average of 48.9% per year from 2005 to 2008.

Figure 3.11: Cruise ship arrivals in Greenland ports and harbours 2003-08


Another indication of an increased interest for sailings in the high north is data from Longyearbyen. Figure 3.12 shows the number of ship calls, while Figure 3.13 shows the number of cruise passengers arriving in the port. The average growth rate 2001-2008 of passengers arriving is 14% per year.

Figure 3.12: No. of ship calls in Longyearbyen 2001-2008 


Source: St.meld (White Paper) 22, 2008-09, section 10.4.1

Figure 3.13: No of Cruise Passenger arriving Longyearbyen 1999-2008 


Source: St.meld (White Paper) 22, 2008-09, section 10.4.1

No good source exists for the exact number of passengers that go on Arctic cruises. AMSA refers to an independent survey indicating that in 2004 1.2 mill passengers went on an Arctic cruise and that this number more than doubled in 20074 . This implies that more than 15% of all cruise passengers had an Arctic destination, since the world total number of cruisers is estimated at around 15 million. Such a number seems much too high, even if ferry passengers are included. Hurtigruten has 11 ships on daily trips to the north, but in total they carry a little over 100.000 passengers per year, which would be less than 0.5% of all Arctic cruises if this study is to be trusted.


Ships Used in Arctic Expeditions

The ships being used for Arctic cruises come in five categories:

·       Icebreakers (used to access the extreme north)

·       Research vessels (often refurbished to obtain close to cruise quality)

·       Other ice class vessels (a few purpose built cruise vessels with high ice class)

·       Ice strengthened vessels

·       Vessels with no ice capability

According to HIS database, there are 3755 passenger vessels in the world fleet, of which 222 (5.9%) has ice class5 . The distribution of these ships according to their ice class category is given in table 3.25. Of the 3755 passenger vessels, 554 are cruise vessels, of which 73 (13.2%) have ice class, a ratio about 3 times as high as for non-cruise passenger vessels

Table 3.24:  Distribution of Passenger Vessels with Ice Class 

Ice class


Per cent

Icebreaking capability



Ice class 1A and 1A Super



Ice class B and C



Ice class II



Ice strengthened






Source: www.sea-web.com(external link)

Table 3.25 lists the 12 cruise vessels that have been built according to ice class 1A and 1A super. Three of these ships are large ships, but they are not used for Arctic operations. One of the ships, Orion, operates in Antarctica, Professor Khromov is only used as a research vessel, Turama is only operating (currently) in the Mediterranean while the six remaining all have Arctic destinations.

When it comes to cruises in ice-covered waters, more ships are operating in Antarctic than in Arctic waters. Most specialist operators will typically offer both. When it is summer in the northern hemisphere, Arctic cruises is offered and in the winter Antarctic is the preferred area.

Table 3.25: Passenger Vessels with Ice Class 1A and 1A Super 

Ship name



Area of operations

Birka Paradise

Birka Line


Baltic sea


Hapag-Lloyd Cruises


Antarctica, Arctic

Clipper Adventurer

Clipper Cruise Line


Antarctica, Greenland, Canadian Arctic


Core Marine Ltd




Hapag-Lloyd Cruises


Antarctica, Arctic

Kristina Regina

Kristina Cruises Oy


Red Seas, Black Sea, Norwegian fjords, Iceland

Louis Majesty

Core Marine Ltd




Travel Dynamics



Polar Star

Polar Star Expeditions


Antarctica, East Greenland

Prince Albert Ii



Antarctica, Spitsbergen, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland

Professor Khromov

Far Eastern Research


Oceanographic trips, Pacific and Indian Ocean


Sete Yacht Mgmt


Mediterranean cruises

Source: www.sea-web.com(external link)

Main Specialist Operators

The U.S. company Quark Expeditions is a leading operator of cruises in ice-covered waters. Their fleet consists mostly of former Russian icebreakers or research ships:

50 Years of Victory – the world’s largest icebreaker with two nuclear reactors with a combined power of 75.000 HP. With 64 cabins in 5 categories the ship can accommodate 128 passengers. The ship is mainly used to go to the North Pole.

Akademik Ioffe is an adventure ship equipped with both zodiacs and kayaks. It operates mostly in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, has a shallow draft and can accommodate 109 passengers.

Akademik Shokalskiy is a former research vessel that also carries kayaks, can accommodate 47 passengers and is mostly used around Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland.

Akademik Sergey Vavilov is similar to Akademik Ioffe and can accommodate 104 passengers.

Kapitan Khlebnikov has navigated the Northwest Passage more than any other ship. It can accommodate 112 passengers.

Quark Expeditions organizes cruise trips through the NSR, with start in Alaska, then to Anadyr on the East Coast of Russia, where passengers can also embark. Then to the  Bering Strait, Wrangel Island, New Siberian Islands, Severnaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land and disembarkation in Murmansk. In total a trip of 27 days is costing between US $ 27.000 – 47.000. Quark expeditions also do a 66 day complete Arctic circumnavigation costing from US$ 65.000 – 113.000. The route is given in figure 3.14.

Figure 3.14: Quark Expeditions’ 66 days’ cruise around the Arctic 


Another major operator for cruises in ice is the Dutch company Oceanwide Expeditions BV. They have also chartered Russian ships, but are currently refurbishing a former Dutch research ship to become their main attraction. The current fleet operated by Oceanwide Expeditions are:

Professor Molchanov, a modern, formerly oceanographic research vessel, built in Finland in 1983. It can accommodate 53 passengers and carries zodiacs.

Professor Mulkanovskly is a sister ship to Molchanov.

The Noorderlicht was built as a three-mastered schooner in Flensburg in 1910, purchased by Oceanwide in 1991 and re-rigged as a two-mastered schooner. She can accommodate 20 passenger.

Antarctic Dream is a Dutch built passenger vessel, formerly owned by the Chilean Navy. It can accommodate 84 passengers.

Plancius was an oceanographic research vessel built for the Royal Dutch Navy in 1976 and operated by the navy until 2004. The vessel is currently in the final stages of being completely rebuilt to accommodate 110 passengers. The ship will carry zodiacs and will operate both in Antarctic as well as Arctic waters. The charters for the two Russian ships will expire in 2010.

In Arctic waters Oceanwide Expedition focuses mainly on Spitsbergen and Greenland.

Lindblad Expeditions, headquartered in New York, is a subsidiary of Lindblad Travels and organises exploration cruises worldwide. Lindblad has a unique strategic alliance with National Geographic, and operate 5 National Geographic vessels. In Arctic waters, Lindblad Expeditions has three main offers:

1.     Norwegian fjords up to Svalbard (16 days)

2.     Exploring Svalbard (11 days)

3.     Svalbard – North Cape – Novaja Zemlja – Franz Josef’s Land – Svalbard (26 days)

The trips are made with the ship National Geographic Explorer, a Norwegian built passenger ship with ice class 1C and a passenger capacity of 154 in 81 cabins. The trip into Russian Arctic is a new offer and NG Explorer will then be the first western ship that will make cruises in Russian waters. Lindblad also offers Alaska cruises, but only in the southern parts of Alaska in ice-free waters.

The New Zealand based company Heritage Expeditions offers cruises in the Russian Far East, mostly in the Bering Sea, but also in the Chukchi Sea: Nome, Alaska – Bering Strait – Wrangel Island – Cape Vankarem – Provideniya and return to Nome (15 days). In Cape Vankarem this cruise offers close contact with the indigenous people – the Chukchi. The ship used for this trip is the Finnish built expedition ship Spirit of Enderby, fully ice classed with Russian flag and accommodation for 48 passengers. The ship carries zodiacs and hovercrafts for exploring shallow waters.

A New Zealand marketing company called Wild Earth Travel organises Arctic trips to Svalbard, the North Pole and in the NWP. For the cruise around Spitsbergen, the US vessel M/S Quest is used (52 passengers, ice class 1B), for the North Pole it is 50 Years of Victory as mentioned above and for the NWP cruises the ship Clipper Adventurer (122 passengers, ice class 1A, see also table 3.26 above) is used. The company is marketing two NWP trips: Into the NWP (Kangerlussauq - Karrat Fiord - Devon Island – Bellot Strait - Queen Maud Gulf – Coronation Gulf to Kugluktuk) and out of the NWP (Kugluktuk – Parry Channel – Grise Fiord – Kap York to Ilulissat, Greenland).

The Canadian based Cruise North Expeditions is employing the Russian built, ice strengthened vessel Lyubov Orlova (112 passengers) for various expeditions in the Baffin Sea, but also into the NWP with two itineraries: One from Resolute Bay to the Coronation Gulf and return by going around the islands of King William (where Gjoa Haven is located) and Somerset back to Resolute Bay. The other goes from Resolute Bay southwards to Kuujjuaq south of Hudson Strait, or the other way around from Kuujjuaq north and west to Resolute Bay.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises operates two vessels with ice class 1A Super - the Bremen and the Hanseatic. They focus mostly on Antarctica, but also have trips in Arctic. They have both conducted trips through the NWP and the Canadian authorities have expressed great concern that these trips were made without proper notification to the authorities. Although the ships have high ice class, the NWP is complicated and dangerous, so the trips were characterised as highly hazardous.

The Norwegian coastal liner operator Hurtigruten has 13 ice classed ships, 11 of which are in daily operation between Bergen and Kirkenes. The two remaining ships are in season used for Arctic cruises; Cruises to Spitsbergen are made with Nordstjernen, built in 1956 with 400 passenger capacity. Greenland cruises are made with Fram, a modern ship built in 2007 with a 400 passenger capacity – one of the larger ships in Arctic operations.

Silversea Cruises, an international company of Italian origin operates the vessel Prince Albert II, which has ice class 1A Super with Det Norske Veritas. The ship was built in Finland in 1989 and can accommodate 158 passengers. The ship makes cruises in the Antarctica, Tromsø-Longyearbyen as well as trips from Iceland, via Greenland to Newfoundland.

Polar Star Expeditions, which is a Canadian company, operates the vessel Polar Star, built in 1969 with ice class 1A Super for 105 passengers, operated by Karlsen Shipping. The ship is mostly used in Antarctica, but sailings are also made from Svalbard to the east coast of Greenland and then to Iceland.

Murmansk Shipping Company has a couple of passenger vessels offering trips in the arctic. The ship Polaris goes to Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen, but also to Franz Josef Land and to the Solovetsky Islands in the Onega Bay. Polaris has capacity for 76 passengers.

The Current Status of Cruises and Expeditions along Arctic Passages

Cruises – or expeditions – are currently made within all three passages of the Arctic – but the main cruise activity is in the corridors outside the passages, particularly around Svalbard and Greenland.

NEPCruises are currently offered for the entire NSR as part of a complete 66 days Arctic circumnavigation cruise, but cruises are also offered into the western (Novaja Zemlja, Franz Josef’s Land) and eastern (Chukchi Sea) extremities of the NSR.

NWPThere are regular cruises offered for trips into Queen Maud Gulf and Coronation Gulf and another offer from or to Resolution Bay, covering parts of the NWP, but there have also been instances of complete NWP passages with cruise vessels through the NWP.

TPPThe Russian icebreaker 50 Years of Victory is making fairly regular trips from Murmansk to the North Pole and back.

Arctic Cruises in the Future

The Arctic will remain a remote and wild area of breath-taking beauty with a unique flora and fauna. If climate change leads to less ice, more of the Arctic will be accessible to cruise ships. The cruise industry is a concept industry which is always on the lookout for new themes and destinations. It is to be expected that if the ice is retreating some cruise operators will follow the edge of the ice. In a longer-term perspective, Arctic cruises would seem to be a growth industry with a great potential.

In the shorter perspective, specialist operators will continue to offer cruises in all three passages. With powerful icebreakers one can reach the North Pole or circumnavigate the entire Arctic Ocean. With expedition ships and ice classed passenger/cruise vessels, trips are offered into the NWP and in the NSR trips go to Novaja Zemlja and Franz Josef’s Land in the west and to the Wrangle Island in the Chukchi Sea in the east. The vessels are fairly small – 50 to 400 passengers – very small compared to the largest cruise vessels of more than 5000 passengers. The larger vessels concentrate on the blue waters around Svalbard and Greenland, which is the target for most Arctic cruises, while the smaller vessels go on expeditions in ice-covered waters.

Arctic cruises are a small niche product, indeed, compared to the mass-markets of the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.The typical cruise ship for Arctic operations carries zodiacs and hovercrafts to enable exploration of shallow waters. Inevitably such cruise activities will one way or the other interfere with the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, disturbing hunting and fishing grounds and even be a danger to people in small crafts like canoes or kayaks. In this respect the cruise operators have a social responsibility to perform.

The cruise vessels used in Arctic operations are very much self-contained units that are not dependent on land infrastructure. This is fine when everything goes smoothly, but is a major problem the day an accident occurs. The coastal states face a big challenge when it comes to providing adequate search and rescue service if cruise activities expand in the Arctic.


  •  1. Search and rescue operations in Arctic waters are very difficult, especially in the case of cruise ships in distress because of the many people involved.
  •  2. missing bibliography definition
  •  3. Martinussen, 1992
  •  4. AMSA (2009), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report, PAME, Arctic Council, Terragraphica, Anchorage, April 2009
  •  5. www.sea-web.com
  •  6. Winjolst, N and T. Wergeland (2008), Shipping Innovation, Rotterdam 2008.

Tor Wergeland and Arnfinn Jørgensen-Dahl, 2010, Arctic Cruise Activity, CHNL.© 

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