TROMSO, NORWAY - Many tourists are drawn to the region around the North Pole for its magnificent glaciers and dancing northern lights.
And with climate change and melting sea ice making the icy north more accessible, tourism to the area is only likely to increase. This has raised concerns over how Arctic cities would cope with the influx of tourists and the impact that the extra people would have on the environment.
The Arctic region is broadly defined by the eight Arctic states - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
Singapore company Keppel Corporation has proposed a solution. "We are looking into the possibility of creating an Arctic Hub, a floating structure which will allow tourists to disembark and visit the Arctic while minimising their impact on the fragile environment," said Mr Aziz Merchant, executive director of the marine and deepwater technology division of Keppel Offshore and Marine, on Tuesday (Jan 22).
Speaking at the plenary on Arctic seaways at the Arctic Frontiers conference here, he said the Arctic Hub could rely on a network of smaller passenger vessels and ships to take tourists to land, but had the potential to become a destination in itself.
He told The Straits Times tourists will always be on the lookout for new experiences and that the Arctic Hub had the potential to provide such an experience without the accompanying environmental damage.
He said: "Some concerns we have heard is that cities may not have the right infrastructure to support Arctic tourism if ships were to dock on land. The Arctic Hub was a concept we put forward to show how tourists can enjoy the Arctic environment and ambience, but without disturbing the fragile environment." The tourism revenue could also benefit Arctic communities and livelihoods, he added.
However, Mr Merchant said plans for the Arctic Hub were still at a conceptual stage and that Arctic tourism was still a developing area.
In the shorter term, Keppel's interests in the Arctic lie in building infrastructure to support the maritime industry in the area, whether in the form of search-and-rescue facilities or in the construction of ice-class vessels, he said.
"Singapore is a maritime nation and Keppel Offshore and Marine is a global leader in offshore rig design, construction and repair, ship repair and conversion, and specialised shipbuilding," said Mr Merchant.
The opportunities and challenges brought about by a warming Arctic were discussed at length at the conference on Tuesday, with policy-makers, academics and business representatives sharing their views on a range of issues, from fisheries to new sea routes.
At the plenary on fisheries, there were discussions of the role of Arctic fisheries and aquaculture in contributing to global food security, at a time when global warming is restricting the ranges for Arctic species such as cod.
For instance, aquaculture currently contributes between 30 per cent and 40 per cent to Norway's overall seafood production, with fisheries making up the bulk. But Norway's state secretary for fisheries Roy Angelvik predicted this proportion would increase in the years ahead.
"The (global) population is growing, somebody has to produce food," said Mr Angelvik. He noted the Norwegian government is in discussion with the industry on how food production can be done with minimal environmental impact.
But it was the role of tourism in the Arctic that sparked heated debate on Tuesday, with both panellists and members of the audience debating if having greater numbers of visitors would be more of a boon or bane to the pristine north.
Mr Daniel Skjeldam, chief executive of the Norwegian explorer cruise line Hurtigruten, said tourism, if done in a sustainable way, could create "climate ambassadors" - tourists who, after witnessing the impacts of climate change on their travels, make changes to their daily lives.
"If you block all forms of tourism to this area, you are taking away livelihoods from a lot of people and you are not doing the teaching. But (the tourism) has to be organised and done in a safe way," he said during the plenary.
Others were less convinced, with an audience member asking the panellists about the impact of noise pollution created by big ships on sea animals such as whales.
She said: "We talk about people, we talk abut money, but what about nature?"
Dr Michael Byers, Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Colombia, said the Canadian government is looking to identify corridors for shipping that steer vessels away from Inuit communities, who are dependent on wildlife.
"The ships are kept away from environmentally sensitive areas because the noise from the ships can be very disturbing to marine mammals, some of which use echolocation to hunt," he said. "This is part of what Canada is seeking to do to reduce the impact of shipping, by providing these corridors as recommendations for where responsible companies should go."