Watch in 360-degrees: As ice disappears, luxury cruises are taking on history’s most treacherous ocean
In February of 1880, a whaling ship sailed north from Scotland, bound for Arctic waters. Her crew’s intended surgeon had been unexpectedly called away and replaced by a young medical student making his maiden voyage: Arthur Conan Doyle. The future detective raconteur was 21, and soon after departing he wrote in his diary: "A heavy swell all day. I came of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 600 miles or so from the North Pole."
The Arctic is indeed funny. There is ice and ocean. And with binoculars, off-white specks can expand into marine mammals. But a visit by ship also yields unexpected sights: flowery pastures, cliffs of crumbly sediment and pillowy moss, fossilized shells from ancient warm water, and vacationers.
That’s right. Vacationers.
Moved by Conan Doyle’s writing or simply because our changing polar landscapes warrant witness, travelers are storming Arctic regions on a staggering scale. In 2016-17’s Northern summer, Greenland brought in a record 110,000 visitors, while Norway’s Svalbard archipelago brought in 145,000—many by cruise ship. Tourism in Nunavut, Canada quintupled between 2011 and 2016. This past April, Greenland formally added tourism as an economic pillar, alongside fishing and mining.
More ships. Massive ships. In 2016, Crystal Serenity, a 1,070-person cruise ship, set a record as the largest passenger vessel to traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage. In 2020, Crystal will launch its first expedition-size ship, a polar-class vessel capable of journeys to the Antarctic and the Arctic. If Glacier Bay, Alaska is any benchmark, Arctic cruising is still in its infancy. In 2016, 95% of Glacier Bay’s 485,000 visitors arrived on commercial cruising vessels. The demand is so great that Princess Cruises expanded its 2017 Alaska fleet by 15%, while Seabourn returned to the Last Frontier for the first time in over a decade.
The cruise industry stands to profit from such growth, according to analysis from George Evans, CIO, Equities, and Portfolio Manager, at OppenheimerFunds: "Three companies share nearly 90% of the cruise market, which is relatively small with only 400,000 berths. This is fewer than the number of hotel rooms in Florida. And unlike Florida hotel rooms, those berths are moveable: Should demand soften in one market, it’s possible to sail a ship to another region."
The boreal opportunity for cruise companies is as much existential as it is economic. Having people see and understand our polar oceans can change how we see ourselves. Before Conan Doyle ever wrote about Sherlock Holmes, he wrote about the Arctic. His memories of northern seas would linger for years and brought about a handful of stories set in the Arctic. He’d credit his Arctic experiences as having changed him into a writer. "It has certainly been a splendid voyage," Conan Doyle wrote. "Beautiful day, wonderfully clear. Icefields, snow white on very dark blue water as far as the eye can reach."
Modern expedition cruising was pioneered by Lars-Eric Lindblad. In 1966 he led the first tourist expedition to Antarctica, and in 1984 his namesake company’s Lindblad Explorer became the first passenger expedition across the Northwest Passage. For veteran operators like Lindblad, expedition is preferred nomenclature over cruise, and explorer over tourist. The distinctions are primarily marketing ploys, but Arctic expedition routes are more open-ended than those of conventional cruises, and expeditions offer ecology lectures alongside open bars.
"Flexibility is paramount… We can’t control what the Arctic will give us," says Russ Evans, Expedition Leader of Lindblad’s 2018 voyage up Greenland and across Canada’s Highlands. Nearly every polar cruise pamphlet depicts a polar bear on its cover, Evans notes, but on some voyages, passengers won’t see a single bear, and rarely does anyone see the elusive tusked whale, the narwhal.
"Or you get extremely lucky see a bear eating a narhwal," says Russ, referencing the afternoon’s feature event.
"That was one in a billion," says Bud Lehnhausen standing beside Evans. Lehnhausen is a research biologist who’s worked for Lindblad since 1983. "I keep emphasizing for everyone just how absolutely privileged we are... Of all 3,000 or 4,000 days our staff has collectively spent up here, I doubt anyone has ever before seen a polar bear hauling a narwhal by its tusk."
Such unpredictability distinguishes expedition cruising from conventional cruising. What doesn’t differ is both categories’ core consumer base: retirees—yet another indicator of potential growth.
"The number of people aged 60 and over globally is expected to grow by more than 3% annually in coming decades," says OppenheimerFunds’ Evans. "As people age, spending patterns change. Annual spending on leisure travel by US retirees is expected to grow from $178 billion in 2016 to $232 billion in 2025."
Expedition ships like The Explorer aren’t your average cruiseliner. They’re smaller, polar class ships, usually with a passenger capacity of 100 to 150. Smaller ships are generally easier to navigate in icy seas. The 1,070 passenger Crystal Serenity had to charter a British polar class escort during its Northwest Passage voyages.
There are 36 polar expedition vessels currently in service with at least 14 on order for voyage by 2022. And as ice disappears, jumbo liners are joining in. In 2019, Princess will have several itineraries passing by Antarctica, one stopping in Greenland, and one in Svalbard. Its Antarctica-bound ship has a passenger capacity of 1,970, while its Arctic-bound ship carries 826. The ships’ sizes limit where such voyages can go, but offer a distinct advantage over smaller competitors. Trips on small ships costs between $15,000 and $30,000 per berth, while Princess’s mass-market version can cost as little as $3,500.
The catch: the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), Antarctica’s self-regulating cruise operator organization, forbids ships carrying over 500 passengers from actually landing. You’ll see Antarctica from sea, but don’t expect any selfies among penguins. Things will only get stricter because Antarctica has just a few areas where landings are physically possible. To limit crowds and safeguard ecosystems, ships carrying under 500 passengers may soon only be allowed to land once each per day.
The Arctic, however, remains a bit of a free-for-all, explains Lehnhausen, who helped form IAATO’s northern counterpart, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), in 2003. While Svalbard has well-developed tourism routes, Greenland is actively expanding access and Canada is gradually opening up waters around Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories for visitors. Canada remains a challenging destination for Arctic cruises due to cautious regulations and arduous customs processes involving coast guard, province officials, and Inuit representatives.
Though Lindblad hosts a handful of expeditions to Franz Josef Land and Wrangel Island every year, Russia’s Arctic regions are even less developed than Canada’s, but that’s due to change. Moscow is hoping to develop northern Russian routes with help from a surprising final player: China. Despite being a non-Arctic state, China is increasingly active in polar areas. The country became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. Beijing announced plans in January for an Arctic extension of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officials have been actively scouting Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia for shipping routes and cruise destinations.
"Cruising is catching on in China—particularly on the eastern seaboard where there’s a greater level of affluence," notes Robert Dunphy, Global Equity Team Portfolio Manager at OppenheimerFunds. "And I think there’s a long runway of growth. In 2015, 10% of China’s population was over 65. In 2050, an estimated 28% of the population will be over 65."
There are plenty of luxury-seekers on Arctic cruises, and many looking for another bucket-list check after seeing Antarctica. Still, many visitors are drawn northward by a sense of urgency. They want to witness polar landscapes and endangered megafauna before it’s all lost. The announcement of a bear, cetacean, or pinniped will send passengers scurrying above deck, binoculars and DSLRs in hand. Ice itself is a sight to behold: glaciers, icebergs, bergy bits, and growlers scatter across vast fjords and volcanic ridges. A National Geographic photographer describes one fjord along Baffin Island as "Yosemite on steroids."
The Arctic looks quite different from when Roald Amundsen first crossed it in 1906. There is dramatically less ice, making previously arduous or impossible routes suddenly feasible in non-icebreakers. Russia’s Northeast Passage now supports a steady summer shipping season, while Northwest Passage crossings are no longer a high-risk operation requiring years of navigation and scores of sacrificed sailors. Bob Haulter, an expedition die-hard, who along with his wife, has been on 25 Lindblad expeditions, notes how quickly everything is changing: "This year, [cruise ships] were in Svalbard by May 15. Just eight years ago, when I was there, Svalbard’s season started June 15. In just eight years, everything’s moved up an entire month. The ice is melting faster."
The busiest stretch of Greenland’s longest road runs 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) between Kangerlussuaq Airport and a rusting single-dock harbor where nearly all Greenland and Canadian Arctic cruises begin. Kangerlussuaq is itself incidental. The 500-person settlement is far inland, away from fog and wind, and hosts Greenland’s only airstrip capable of supporting a jumbo jet. If you’re visiting Greenland, you’re inevitably stopping there. In 2018’s Arctic season, 30 Arctic cruises departed from Kangerlussuaq, up from about 20 just five years ago, per a local stevedore. The stevedore hired a few dozen extra seasonal dockhands from Denmark to accommodate demand from cruise operators in 2018.
Establishing an Arctic cruise industry isn’t without challenges. Greenland lacks simple infrastructure for its population of 56,000. The island has no roads connecting its 17 settlements. But the country is quickly building up for a greater influx of visitors. At a cost of about $595 million, domestic runways in both Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and tourist must-see, Ilulissat, are being extended so both are long enough for international airliners. Like all Arctic countries, Greenland has seen an unabated influx of cruise ships in recent years. Mining facilities in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg in Svalbard are being converted into lodges and restaurants. Southeast Alaska has been widening ports for its burgeoning cruises numbers. Finland is building railways across Lapland.
Lack of infrastructure is one challenge. Ice is another. In 1972, one of Lindblad’s ships ran aground in Antarctica—its passengers, including Lars-Eric Lindblad himself, were rescued by Chile’s Navy. In 2007, another polar class ship bound for Antarctica struck an iceberg and evacuated all 91 passengers and 63 crew onto lifeboats until a Norwegian ship arrived five hours and 36 minutes after mayday was issued.
"There will be incidents, and our current fleet of icebreakers isn’t equipped," explains a reserve Canadian Coast Guard captain contracted by Lindblad. As ice breaks apart, Arctic countries are entering a race for northern ocean control, and icebreakers will be a determinant in who wins. The bottom line for emerging Arctic industries—shipping, fishing, extractives, and cruises—is driving rapid construction of icebreakers worldwide, but a gap remains. Operators will either avoid challenging ice when an icebreaker isn’t close by, or invest in polar class vessels themselves.
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty was amended in 1991 with stricter guidelines designating Antarctica as a "natural reserve dedicated to peace and science." That year, seven expedition operators formed IAATO as a self-regulating body for reconciling expedition best practices with Treaty standards. In 2003, AECO was formed with similar goals for Arctic operators. The Norwegian government planned to close Svalbard’s western islands for dedicated scientific research. Lehnhausen, along with representatives from other operators, enacted strict self-regulations on expedition operators, hoping Norway would reconsider. Norway did, and AECO eventually grew into a regulatory body for all Arctic regions, which, unlike Antarctica, includes four million inhabitants, including 220,000 indigenous peoples from groups like Canada’s Inuit or Norway’s Saami.
AECO recommendations include spreading visitors across various regions, keeping distance from wildlife, recording archaeological erosion, disallowing picking or purchase of flora or fauna products, practicing safe waste removal, decontaminating boots, having visitors collect any found litter, and reporting on ice and wildlife conditions. "If we see a deceased polar bear, we call the governor and they come pick it up to do an autopsy," says Lehnhausen. In certain parts of Canada, regulations require visitors walk beside one another, instead of in a line, so desire paths don’t permanently warp vegetation or disturb permafrost. Similar regulations govern relations with indigenous groups. Operators pay by head when visiting Inuit settlements, and certain indigenous archaeological sites can only be visited with a licensed anthropologist in attendance.
The 140-passenger Explorer burned 180 kilograms of fuel over 2,004 nautical miles, or roughly 1,375 liters per passenger (an average American uses 1,892 liters of motor gasoline per year). Tours can offer carbon offset options. Some operators recently unveiled hybrid electric-petroleum-powered ships, which reduce fuel consumption by 20%. Others are looking into wind, fuel cell, and LNG-powered ships in an effort to at least hit a UN goal of 50% emission reduction in shipping by 2050. The OECD found biofuels could yield full decarbonization in shipping by 2035. There’s precedent for hitting such ambitious goals: Many cruise companies have already met 2020 UN mandates to reduce sulfur content in maritime fuel from 3.5% to 0.5%.
But as more passenger ships enter polar waters, AECO is particularly focused on zeroing human impact on land. Whether cruise conglomerates can achieve an equivalent level of sustainability as smaller operators will ultimately dictate polar cruising’s future. The heightening competition may make good environmental records a key marketing advantage, while addressing concerns from AECO and Arctic governments.
The big, proclaimed offset for operators, however, is in cultivating conservationism. Arctic ambassadorship involves having passengers share experiences and knowledge with communities back home. To that end, polar expeditions regularly host educators, heads of state, philanthropist, scientists, CEOs, documentarians, and nearly always a retired astronaut, including Apollo 11’s Second Man himself, who went straight for the South Pole.
The presence of astronauts isn’t coincidental. Before space, polar regions were considered our Final Frontiers. Our poles are hostile non-human environments just like space. And astronauts, if not already climatologists, gain a heightened appreciation for climate as Earth’s cloudy surface swirls below. It’s a humbling feeling. Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut recently riding on an expedition describes her Arctic visits as distantly similar.
Arctic and Antarctic cruising hasn’t been viable for a mass market—until now. With rising global affluence, an aging populous, and improvements in fuel and ice navigation technology, cruise lines are poised to see substantial growth, and particularly so in Arctic and Antarctic regions. And while commercial space exploration could eventually take the top stop for premier travel, polar cruising is already here and ready for booking. "People want experiences. The companies that can provide those experiences in a cost effective and easy way are going to be the winners," says Dunphy.