WASHINGTON • The once forbidding Arctic region, home to polar bears and ice-covered seas, has melted enough that this summer it is open not only for shipping but also high-end tourism.
The proof lies in the Crystal Serenity cruise, a luxury tour of the Arctic promising to carry passengers through the North-west Passage and across the roof of the world. The controversial cruise was scheduled to set sail on Tuesday from Seward, Alaska, and dock 32 days later in New York City.
Scientists have long predicted this moment, although as recently as last year, a scientific study found the North-west Passage would remain too unpredictable for regular shipping for some time to come. But that has not stopped some commercial shipping vessels from already making the journey.
Nor did it stop the planning for the Arctic's inaugural cruise - a journey that will mark the first case of mega-scale tourism in one of the last virtually untouched landscapes left in the world.
As many as 1,700 passengers and crew were expected to be on board the Crystal Serenity, which will transit the Bering Strait and visit Greenland. Tickets for the historic journey started at just under US$22,000 (S$29,600) and went to about US$121,000, according to the company website.
That price does not include extras that guests can book, such as a helicopter ride, a flight-seeing exploration of Provideniya in Russia across the Bering Sea, and a side excursion to a Greenland glacier.
Despite the cost, the trip sold out quickly, and the firm behind it said a second journey is being planned.
More than anything, the cruise is a symbol, a harbinger of the tourism and commercial traffic that is likely to fill the once-isolated, ice-choked waters of the Arctic. Many scientists have projected that the ocean could become virtually free of ice during summers at some point, perhaps as soon as the next few decades.
That would leave the passage open to a wave of ships that could transform what, until now, has been among the least travelled places on earth. Such a scenario has caused angst among those eager to explore the Arctic as well as those who want it protected.
The expedition has also raised safety concerns.
Bid to limit cruise's impact on environment
The North-west Passage was first navigated more than a century ago by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, but has been ice-free only in recent years. The journey raises questions about further human degradation of a region disproportionately affected by climate change, where temperatures are rising twice as quickly as the world average.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada recognises that Crystal Cruises has tried to minimise its environmental impact, but the area lacks the infrastructure to deal with potential accidents, said Mr Andrew Dumbrille, WWF Canada's manager for Oceans and the Arctic.The US$350 million (S$471 million) Crystal Serenity is 249m long, the largest cruise ship to launch a commercial voyage.
It has 13 decks and 535 state rooms. And its guests will not be roughing it out. It has a driving range and putting green, casino, movie theatre, half a dozen restaurants, multiple pools and a library with thousands of books, games and DVDs. Plus 24-hour complimentary room service.
The voyage has 14 stops before reaching New York, taking 32 days, with most stops offering excursions such as mountain hikes and bird-watching, a side trip to study climate change, iceberg kayaking, whale-watching, helicopter flights and ice-camp stays.
The company says it is trying to limit the vessel's environmental impact and the impact of its guests during port stops, particularly at small, remote communities of just a couple of hundred people.
According to National Geographic, people in Ulukhaktok, a Canadian town of about 400, are preparing for the Serenity's arrival on Aug 27. But to avoid overwhelming the community, no more than 150 passengers at a time will be allowed to disembark.
To help educate the guests, marine biologists, specialists in Arctic affairs and culture and climate change are on board as part of the expedition team.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST
The North-west Passage is extremely remote. The small towns that dot its shores can hardly handle an influx of patients if there were a major medical emergency.
And were the ship to somehow get stranded or need help, sending aid could be dangerous, uncertain and massively challenging.
"If the entire ship - all 1,000 passengers, all 600 crew - require search and rescue, for instance, if the ship sinks, then that would actually break the Canadian search- and-rescue system," Mr Michael Byers, a research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, told CBC news.
"The area is plagued by a lack of adequate nautical charts, virtually no navigation aids, poor communication systems and a lack of infrastructure," said former vice-admiral of the US Coast Guard Roger Rufe. The Bering Strait, which includes a passage as narrow as 88km in one location, is of "principal concern", he said.
That is not to say there has not been huge amounts of preparation for the voyage. US and Canadian government and Coast Guard officials have worked closely with Crystal Cruises to plan for the trip - and for emergencies that might arise.
The ship will be accompanied by an ice-breaking boat and two helicopters. The vessel will be getting constant updates from the Canadian Ice Service, said Mr Paul Garcia, director of global public relations for the cruise company.
The ship features "two ice searchlights, forward-looking sonar, a thermal imaging camera and software to improve the ability to pick up small contacts on the radar such as small amounts of ice".
Researchers told the Washington Post that the passage is hardly ice free - which is not to say that it is anything the ship cannot handle.
Mr Christian Haas, a researcher at York University in Canada, consulted Canadian Ice Service data and added that some ice remained in the southern Beaufort Sea plus Peel Sound and that there was significant ice in the Victoria Strait and M'Clintock Channel.
But then, perhaps that is just what Crystal Serenity's passengers are paying for.