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Passenger Vessels and Tourism in the Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Passenger vessel activity represents a significant proportion of the vessel activity reported in the Arctic for 2004. The type of activity captured in the AMSA database includes ferry services, small and large cruise vessels and any other vessels where people are transported, whether for tourism purposes or otherwise. The type of activity taking place varies depending on its location. In Norway, Greenland and Iceland, some of the passenger vessel traffic consists of ferries, carrying people into and out of coastal communities. In other areas, such as Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, ferry services are non-existent and all passenger traffic would be vessels for marine tourism only. Some services, such as the Hurtigruten around Norway and ferry service to Iceland and Greenland from mainland Europe are hybrids, serving both as ferries and cruise ships. Map 5.4 presents the overall passenger vessel traffic in the Arctic for 2004.

Nearly all passenger vessel activity in the Arctic takes place in ice-free waters, in the summer season and the vast majority of it is for marine tourism purposes. In 2004, the only passenger vessels that traveled in ice-covered waters were the Russian nuclear icebreakers that took tourists to the North Pole, voyages they have been making for tourism purposes since 1990. The heaviest passenger vessel traffic in the AMSA 2004 ship activity database is seen along the Norwegian coast, off the coast of Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. Though there was some passenger vessel traffic in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, those numbers were small in comparison to the higher traffic areas.

Marine-based tourism is the largest segment of the Arctic tourism industry in terms of numbers of persons, geographic range and types of recreation activities. The size and type of vessels that service this industry range from relatively small expedition style vessels that hold less than 200 people, to large luxury cruise liners that can hold 1,000 or more. In the Arctic, marine tourism is highly diversified and is driven by five main types of tourists seeking out a range of activities. These include mass market tourists primarily attracted to sightseeing within the pleasurable surroundings of comfortable transport and accommodations; the sport fishing and hunting market driven by tourists who pursue unique fish and game species within wilderness settings; the nature market driven by tourists who seek to observe wildlife species in their natural habitats, and/or experience the beauty and solitude of natural areas; the adventure tourism market driven by tourists who seek personal achievement and exhilaration from meeting challenges and potential perils of outdoor sport activities; and the culture and heritage tourism market driven by tourists who either want to experience personal interaction with the lives and traditions of indigenous people, or personally experience historic places and artifacts.

While Arctic ship-based tours are booked well in advance, many of the itineraries are somewhat opportunistic. The precise route and the ports and communities visited depend on the ice conditions and the difficulty and risk of access. Cruise ships often intentionally travel close to the ice edge and shorelines for wildlife viewing opportunities, increasing the risk of interaction with ice and other hazards. Many Arctic cruise ships visit destinations that were once totally inaccessible to the public, such as the North Pole, Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. Between 1984 and 2004, 23 commercial cruise ships accomplished transits of the Northwest Passage; seven commercial tours were planned for 2008 alone.

According to the Cruise Lines International Organization, the number of passengers served worldwide has grown from about 500,000 in 1970 to more than 12 million in 2006. Additional growth is now occurring in the number and passenger capacity of new cruise ships entering the market. The Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas entered the fleet in June 2007 with the largest passenger capacity yet – 3,634 – twice the size of ships built a decade ago. From 2000 to the end of 2008, 88 new cruise ships were introduced. The vast majority of these vessels were not constructed or designed to operate in Arctic conditions, yet as Arctic cruise tourism continues to grow, it is very likely that many of them may make trips to the region. The cruise ship industry considers Arctic voyages to be a vital and especially lucrative part of their international tourism product. This is apparent when considering the price that tourists pay to travel to this region. As of 2008, the prices for Arctic cruises range between $US2,900 and $US55,000 per person. The cruise ship industry has indicated that it not only intends to maintain an Arctic presence, but to expand in terms of ship passenger capacity, destinations and extended seasons of operations. This will be encouraged by circumpolar nations that consider tourism important for growing and strengthening their economies.

Cruise ship traffic in the Arctic region has increased significantly in the four years that have passed since the AMSA database was developed. An independent survey indicated more than 1.2 million passengers traveled in 2004 to Arctic destinations aboard cruise ships; however, by 2007 that number had more than doubled.

A specific example of where cruise ship traffic is increasing at a rapid rate is off the coast of Greenland. As Table 5.3 shows, cruise ship visits and the number of passengers visiting Greenland has increased significantly between 2003 and 2008. For example, between 2006 and 2007, port calls into Greenland increased from 157 to 222 cruise ships. The number of port calls in 2006 combined for a total of 22,051 passengers, a number that represents nearly half of Greenland’s total 2006 population of 56,901.

In 2008, approximately 375 cruise ship port calls were scheduled for Greenland ports and harbors, more than double the number of port calls seen in 2006. The areas visited by the cruise vessels in Greenland are also changing. Likely driven by increased demand in adventure tourism, Tourism Greenland has reported that in the past few years there has been a marked increased interest in trips to the far North of Greenland, an area that has traditionally not been visited by many tourists. In 2008, 28 vessels were scheduled to travel as far north as Uummannaq, some continuing on to Qaanaaq, both destinations far north of the Arctic Circle and far from good infrastructure or emergency response capabilities. Many of the cruise vessels traveling to these destinations are likely not ice-strengthened.Though this area is classified as ice-free in the summer, this does not mean that ice is not present and, even in small amounts, ice can pose a serious hazard. The Greenland government is very conscious of the rapid growth in cruise ship traffic in their waters and Island Command Greenland, the naval service covering Greenland waters that organizes both rescue and emergency operations, has recently put an increased focus on cruise activities in Greenland waters.

Passenger vessels, in particular cruise ships, is a sector that has experienced rapid growth in certain regions in the few years that have passed since the development of the AMSA database and is one which is expected to expand further in coming years. As this sector grows and more and larger ships begin to ply Arctic waters, it will become increasingly important to understand this type of activity so that Arctic states are prepared to meet the future needs of these vessels and their passengers.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©