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Cruise Shipping in the Arctic 

(by Arnfinn Jørgensen-Dahl)


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.

The Passages in Comparison

Specialist operators offer currently cruise experiences in all three passages with vessels and icebreakers accommodating typically 50-150 passengers. For the NSR the busiest areas are in both the western and eastern extremes of the route, but trips are also made along the entire NSR. For the NWP only occasional trips are made for the entire passage, but regular sailings are made in the eastern part of the passage. There are regular sailings to the North Pole with a nuclear icebreaker. Larger vessels up to 400 passengers operate on a regular basis mostly in the corridors just outside of the passages, mainly around Greenland and Svalbard, which stand for the main Arctic cruise traffic.

With the prospect of less ice-covered waters in the Arctic in the future, it is expected that cruise operators will follow the edge of the ice. The ships are self-contained and most of them carry zodiacs and even hovercrafts, enabling the cruise passengers to explore shallow waters. The chances are high that cruise traffic will interfere with the traditional hunting life of the indigenous peoples, mainly along the NEP and the NWP, so the cruise industry must show social responsibility to avoid direct conflicts.


    Arnfinn Jørgensen-Dahl, 2010, Cruise Shipping in the Arctic, CHNL.©

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