For cruise operators and yacht owners, the progressive retreat of polar ice due to global warming is an invitation to venture ever further north, including to once-remote locations such as the island of Svalbard, northern Greenland or the Baffin sea. These destinations are extremely sensitive, both in terms of potential ecological damage and impact on local communities. The environmental damage is compounded by the poor practices of many cruise operators in terms CO2 emissions and waste management.
As always, tourism in the Arctic acts as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the environment and to the social fabric of local communities. On the other hand, sustainable forms of tourism can serve to protect these territories from unbridled industrial development, in the form of unsupervised mining practices. Properly managed, it can raise awareness of environmental issues among stakeholders and serve as a catalyst for protective measure, such as the creation of national or regional parks.
These issues were recently raised at a meeting organized in Helsinki as part of the joint programme of the Belmont Forum and BiodivERsA, to develop scenarios of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Discussions around tourism and biodiversity were largely led by David Ward-Perkins of TEAM and Ilja Leo Lang of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), an international association whose members operate in marine areas and territories beyond 60 degrees north latitude including Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Greenland, Arctic Canada, the Russian Arctic National Park and Iceland.
Meanwhile, legislation to restrict and monitor cruising and yachting practices at an international level is critical, but is slow in coming. The vacuum is being partly filled by AECO, whose members follow an extensive set of guidelines and set standards for the industry.
In September 2019, a workshop is being held in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, organized by AECO, the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research (NINA) and Visit Svalbard. It will assemble organisations keen to shape research questions that can contribute to knowledge-based management of tourism in Svalbard and similarly sensitive areas. The workshop is aimed at researchers from a broad range of fields, including the social sciences, economics, natural sciences, business and tourism. The purpose is to identify projects, priorities and strategies that can serve to find the optimal balance for sustainable tourism development in fragile areas..