Arctic luxury liner cruises into controversy and opportunity

The Crystal Serenity cruise ship is set to become the largest passenger vessel to sail the Northwest Passage with 1,000 passengers, each paying upward of $20,000.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/AP/File
Ice floes in Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle are seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent, on July 10, 2008. Melting ice in the Arctic has opened up the Northwest Passage to larger ships than ever before.

For the 1,000 passengers aboard the Crystal Serenity cruise ship, climate change has brought a luxurious opportunity: to sail into the history books on the largest passenger vessel to traverse the once unnavigable Northwest Passage.

The historic voyage has never before been possible for such a large ship, but climate change has nudged open the door to the Arctic. The arrival of the massive 820-foot ship and its wealthy passengers (each paying from $20,000 to $120,00 for the month-long journey) has brought a flurry of excitement and tourist income to the remote town of Nome, Alaska. But it has also brought intense scrutiny from critics, who say Crystal Cruises is capitalizing on the destruction of the planet.

“As global temperatures soar, wildfires rage and sea ice levels dwindle to record lows, a luxury cruise company has found a way to make a pretty penny off our rapidly changing climate,” Chris D’Angelo writes for The Huffington Post.

That sentiment is exacerbated by a recent report that portrays cruise ships as massive pollution machines that burn through tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and emit the equivalent pollution produced by millions of cars.

While climate scientists and environmentalists lament the lost of sea ice in the Arctic, for others the opening of the Northwest Passage has meant economic opportunity. In recent years, a great polar rush has unfolded in both poles, as newly opened passage ways have sent such nations as China, Russia, Britain, and Chile scrambling to map previously uncharted sea floors and claim the territorial rights for any fossil fuel stores that may lie below.

“Global warming may have cracked open the door to the poles but worldwide hunger for resources is prying it wider, with greater force,” Douglas Fox wrote in a 2014 cover story for The Christian Science Monitor exploring the great polar rush.

Cruise-ship tourism in both the Arctic and Antarctic began to rise in the early 2000s, with cruise passenger travel to Greenland more than doubling between 2003-2007 and the number of tourists arriving in Antarctica skyrocketing from 1,000 per year in the 1980s to a peak of 46,000 in the 2007-2008 austral summer. 

With the rise in tourist traffic has also come an increase in emergency rescues. In 2014, 52 passengers had to be airlifted by helicopter from The Academic Shokalskiy, a research-tourism vessel, after it became stuck in sea ice and a diverted Chinese ship sent to rescue the passengers also became stuck. About half of the passengers aboard the Shokalskiy were tourists paying about $16,000 for the four-week cruise, as the Monitor reported:

According to the expedition’s website, paying passengers were promised 'a truly unique voyage, offering the public an opportunity to take part in an exciting scientific expedition to the Antarctic continent.' Drones were to be used to ensure a safe passage through the ice, but it appears that such precautions failed to prevent the 71-meter-long ship (about 233 feet) from getting stranded.

Rescue operations for that trip approached $1 million.

Safety remains a concern for vessels navigating the icy waters of both polar regions. These areas are poorly mapped and ships have run into trouble after encountering rocks. Passengers have also been injured when chunks of falling glacier have sent waves of ice and water on the deck.

“These regions have harsh conditions, and if you make one small mistake it can have very serious consequences,” Miriam glitz of WWF-International’s Oslo-based Arctic program told the Monitor in 2007.

Crystal Cruises has employed an ice breaker and two scouting helicopters to help guide the Serenity through the Northwest Passage.

So far, at least, the cruise passengers appear thrilled by the journey. The ship reached its last port-of-call on Sunday before heading into the Arctic. Passengers disembarked the ship for excursions into Nome, where some locals had been preparing for eight months for the arrival of the ship. Local craftsman and shopkeepers eagerly awaited the wealthy visitors, hoping to entice them to indulge in local fare from halibut pizza to walrus ivory jewelry.

Controversy aside, the opening of the Northwest Passage to cruise liners is a “game changer” for Nome and its 3,800 residents, Mayor Richard Beneville told Alaska Dispatch News.

“We’ve always talked about diversifying the economy in Alaska,” Mayor Beneville said. “By opening up Western Alaska, the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean, we will begin revenue streams that – we don’t even know what they are!”

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