Melting sea ice sparks debate over arctic tourism

While an influx of tourists could have a detrimental impact on the arctic environment, blocking all forms of tourism is not the solution as it means taking away livelihoods from a lot of people, say observers. Instead, tourism has to be organised, an
While an influx of tourists could have a detrimental impact on the arctic environment, blocking all forms of tourism is not the solution as it means taking away livelihoods from a lot of people, say observers. Instead, tourism has to be organised, and done in a safe way, they add.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Keppel Corp proposes hub for smaller ships to minimise impact on North Pole's ecology

Many tourists are drawn to the region around the North Pole for its glaciers and northern lights. And, with melting sea ice making the icy north more accessible to ships, tourism is only likely to increase.

This has raised concerns over how arctic cities and communities would cope with an influx of tourists, and the impact that they would have on the environment.

Singapore infrastructure company Keppel Corp 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.

At a plenary on seaways at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, on Tuesday, he said the arctic hub could rely on a network of smaller passenger vessels to take tourists to land, but had the potential to become a destination in itself.

He told The Straits Times that there are concerns 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 without disturbing the fragile environment," he said, adding that tourism revenue could also benefit arctic communities.

However, Mr Merchant said plans for the arctic hub are still at a conceptual stage and that arctic tourism is still a developing area.

 
 

In the shorter term, Keppel's interests lie in building infrastructure to support the maritime industry in the Arctic, whether in the form of search-and-rescue facilities or in the construction of ice-class vessels, he said.

The opportunities and challenges brought about by a warming Arctic were discussed at length at the conference on Tuesday, with policymakers, academics and business representatives sharing their views on a range of issues, from fisheries to new sea routes.

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.

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 will increase in the years ahead.

But it was the role of tourism in the Arctic that sparked the most heated debate, with panellists and members of the audience debating whether 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.

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, who holds the 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2019, with the headline 'Melting sea ice sparks debate over arctic tourism'. Print Edition | Subscribe