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The Price of “Discovering” the Arctic – Part II

The Price of “Discovering” the Arctic – Part II

October 1, 2014

By Gianna De Filippis

In Part I of “Discovering the Arctic,” we explored the environmental effects of tourism in the Arctic. In Part II, we take a closer look at the economic and cultural effects.

Economic Effects

While cruise ships pose several environmental threats to the Arctic, they have undeniable economic benefits—particularly for the populations in the Arctic. Offering an alternative to traditional economic activities, such as subsistence fishing and hunting, they can profit from the large tourist groups in need of food, lodging, and guidance. In a study conducted by Emma Stewart and Dianne Draper in 2009, researchers interviewed locals in Cambridge Bay (located on the Northwest Passage in the Western Canadian Arctic) and Pond Inlet (located on the northeastern shores of Baffin Island). In both communities, cruise tourism was welcomed and supported, mostly for economic reasons. In Cambridge Bay, residents stated that cruise tourism was especially “beneficial to local carvers,” a point also made by residents in Pond Inlet who indicated that the cruises have helped “rekindle the craft industry” and “create good jobs for local people.” And cruises aren’t only benefitting local craftsmen; the Resource Development Council for Alaska claims that tourism is the second-largest private sector employer, and accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs. The most recent available data indicates that the tourism industry generates over 39,000 direct and indirect jobs, 9% of Alaska employment, and $1.32 billion in combined labor income. While many of the Arctic locals are working at restaurants and hotels (in 2011, demand for tourism in Norway contributed 29 million commercial guest nights), they are, of course, also working as tour guides.

Cultural Effects

While many locals support Arctic cruise tourism for its economic benefits, they have also expressed concern about the cultural change that tourism would bring to their communities. In Stewart and Draper’s study, locals from both communities believed that the “opportunity to educate visitors and to dispel myths about living in the north” was important, while others voiced concerns about using traditions for “show time for tourists” (referring to the cultural demonstrations for visitors). Amongst other complaints were “tourists don’t always ask permission before they take photographs,” “tourists are not always culturally aware”, and  “tourists misunderstand Inuit hunting culture.” This last point, about the impact of tourism on local hunting culture, has been a major topic of discussion by both outside organizations and local governments.

Some organizations argue that many forms of cruise tourism deplete the Arctic’s natural resources upon which hunting practices rely on, while others argue that their hunting culture is threatened by tourists physically disturbing the prey as well as spreading information to animal rights groups. For example, in 1988, the Inuvialuit passed the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, a set of tourist guidelines for beluga-related activities to prevent physical interference with hunting, as well as misrepresentation of the activity


Over the past few years, countries holding Arctic territory have recognized and attempted to address the mentioned effects of Arctic cruise tourism, as have various intergovernmental agencies and NGOs alike.

Norway, for example, has placed regulations on ships inside two large nature reserves in Svalbard, banning the use of heavy fuel oil and restricting the number of passengers. The Arctic Council has launched an ongoing project, The Arctic Marine Tourism Project (AMTP), which aims to identify and ultimately implement the best Arctic cruise practices. Various governmental and NGOs have created further suggestions for developing environmentally, culturally, and economically sustainable cruise tourism practices for the region.

The UN’s 2005 World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and Environmental Program (UNEP), for example, created a list of essential principles for sustainable tourism for policy makers. The list includes environmental purity, resource efficiency, cultural richness, and local prosperity. The World Wildlife Fund for nature (WWF) developed a set of conduct rules for both Arctic cruise tourists and cruise operators. They include using non-motorized means of transportation, following local conservation rules, limiting energy use, and learning about the customs of local areas prior to visiting. While these tourism guides are a step towards greener, culturally sensitive cruise ship lines, we need to enact laws that prohibit the disposal of passenger waste, require the use of renewable energy, and enforce rules of social and cultural conduct for tour guides and passengers.

Many forms of cruise tourism are detrimental to the Arctic. However, Arctic cruise tourism does bring economic benefits to the local people, and despite its contribution to climate change, can actually aid in creating awareness about environmental issues in the region. Thus we must continue conducting research on the industry and—as many governments and organizations have already done—start taking action to preserve local traditions and prevent further environmental damage to the critical region. Benefiting the local people is a positive contribution. Destroying their environment and, in turn, wreaking havoc on the polar region, is not.



Gianna De Filippis is a former research assistant at World Policy Institute 

[Photo Courtesy of Enrico Luigi Delponte]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.