At 78 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, Svalbard is the final frontier before the North Pole, some 650 miles of pack ice away. The archipelago is raw, elemental and brutally beautiful. By nature, it invites adventure: hiking, kayaking, camping, ski touring, dog sledding and snowmobiling. Go in search of polar bears and the Northern Lights, and you’ll find it works its magic on you in far more subtle and profound ways: the blue silence of the night; the sense-startling cold; the feeling of being alone on the frozen tundra, with mountains rearing up like great icy waves; and the sight of a wild reindeer, walrus or fleeting Arctic fox.
A trip to the Arctic has the power to change you and make you view the world differently. But with a 2021 report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme suggesting the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, the sea ice rapidly melting and wildlife losing habitat as a consequence, should we be there at all?
Can travel to the Arctic be sustainable?
While critics point to the ‘last-chance tourism’ boom in big cruise liners, which pollute heavily and give back very little, other industry experts are adamant that travel to places like Svalbard can be a force for good, providing you make the right choices. Choose a small boat if cruising, they say, and one that actively supports local conservation and communities.
“Unlike Antarctica, there’s no Arctic treaty, and the region’s vulnerability to exploitation is rising as its ice recedes. But tourism can offer a disincentive to threats like mining,” says Justin Francis, founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, which offers small-ship, environmentally sound, wildlife-focused cruises around Svalbard’s main inhabited island, Spitsbergen. “Approached responsibly, travel here provides an unrivalled learning opportunity that transforms visitors into campaigners for the region’s protection and, crucially, an economic incentive for regional preservation. The key is sustainable numbers that contribute significant value.”
Are there low-impact small cruises?
Run by passionate conservationists, Secret Atlas has gone even further, with leave-no-trace expedition cruises on vessels carrying just 12 passengers. The environment-focused company arranges tree-planting schemes and gives back to communities through actions like Arctic beach clean-ups.
This is an excerpt from an article by Kerry Walker, originally published by National Geographic.