Is it responsible to travel to pristine locations such as the Arctic and Antarctica? There are plenty of social media debates on the subject, with some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed at all. Strong opinions are expressed about environmental degradation, pollution, and disruption to wildlife.
Tourism activities can, after all, negatively impact fragile Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems which are being increasingly affected by climate change. Particularly in remote polar regions, the natural behavior of wildlife such as seals, whales, and penguins can also be disrupted, causing stress and disturbing their breeding and feeding patterns. Receding ice due to temperature rises is already causing enough problems, forcing wildlife to compete and retreat, so it is now all the more important to be extremely careful and mindful when traveling in polar regions. Tourism in certain locations can also alter the way of life of the local people, eroding their cultural traditions and values, and too high a concentration of tourists in specific areas can lead to overcrowding, damaging the local infrastructure and depleting resources.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! While it is true that travel in the Arctic and Antarctic could potentially have negative impacts on the environment, local communities, and cultural heritage, it all depends on how you travel. Very few boats travel to polar regions, meaning that in these vast areas there is room for all of them, as long as everyone involved is respectful and behaves responsibly.
Anywhere beautiful that is in some way accessible will attract visitors, so the question is not IF people should travel there (as they will, anyway), but rather HOW. Experience shows that the best way to preserve nature is by implementing strict rules through a governing body that oversees tourism and by regulating the number of tourists and putting strict guidelines in place which govern what they are allowed to do.
This model works exceptionally well and is in essence the concept of a national park. Antarctica and the Arctic are no different. The better tour operators adhere to the Arctic Guidelines for Tourism Operators developed by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), and the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which aim to minimize the impact of tourism on the environment and local communities.
These regulatory bodies have set down clear guidelines on how to behave when visiting the Arctic and Antarctica, which may change from year to year. And a recent news story in The Guardian showed just how strict the regulations can be in the Arctic, when the producers of the latest Mission: Impossible film dropped their application to obtain government permission for dozens of helicopter landings on Svalbard.
It is therefore vital to choose a certified tour operator, which adheres to these strict guidelines, promotes responsible practices that minimize negative impacts on delicate ecosystems, supports conservation efforts, and offsets carbon. At the same time, each individual traveler must also take responsibility for their own behavior in untouched and fragile ecosystems, ensuring that these remain unspoiled.
The carbon footprint of tourist activities can be reduced by promoting low-impact travel options that include eco-friendly accommodation and transportation (such as dog sledding). By engaging with local communities and supporting their livelihoods, responsible tourism can create incentives for conservation and foster a sense of stewardship among local residents.
Responsible tour operators in the Arctic and Antarctica are taking steps to minimize their impact on the environment and promote sustainable tourism practices. Polartours is among them in adhering to all established guidelines, minimizing waste, and reducing and even offsetting carbon emissions. Staff and crews are passionate about the regions, and many are enthusiasts and scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying these marvelous ecosystems. So it is also in their best interests to behave extremely responsibly and to be very strict with passengers. Polartours educates their guests, for example on sustainable behavior during landings on expedition cruises to Antarctica and the Arctic.
Many of the regions to be explored have very delicate ecosystems which it is our duty as humans to protect and preserve. The expedition team guide gives guests detailed instructions on how to behave when going ashore, which must be followed to the letter.
The first golden rule is: Leave everything as you find it. This means only going ashore with the bare necessities, such as the warm clothes you are wearing, and a bottle of water. You will not be allowed to take any food ashore with you, unless this is medically necessary, for example if you are diabetic.
The flip side to this primary golden rule is to not leave anything behind and not to alter the environment in any way; for example, no cairn or snowman building is allowed.
The second golden rule is to stick to the marked routes—the paths are designated with red flags and you must not stray from them, as they are there for a reason. If you leave the path, your boot might sink into the deep snow, making a deep hole. If this happens, you must fill it in, as penguins or their young could fall in and become trapped.
A third golden rule concerns proximity to wildlife, particularly at certain times of year. Do not approach wildlife. Wildlife may sometimes approach you. Penguins, for example, are curious and sociable by nature and might come up to you and peck your boot (or even jump into your lap)! If this happens, you should step back, for a number of reasons. There may be an outbreak of avian flu or another infection. A safe distance to view penguins is from 3 to 5 meters away, which will prevent you from spreading disease between one colony and another. Before leaving and returning to the ship, you will be asked to scrub your boots (penguin poop is unavoidable in and around colonies) and they will be dipped in disinfectant for this purpose before you leave them in the mud room to dry off.
Sound is very important for toothed whales such as narwhals, killer whales, and belugas, as they use sound to navigate, hunt, and communicate. Belugas are still hunted in many parts of the world, but these charming and intelligent mammals have found a safe haven in Svalbard, where they are a protected species and are present in large pods.
You will find that certified tour operators maintain a respectful distance from whales, especially the shyer species, such as bowhead whales. Some species, including beluga, are very sociable and curious and are likely to approach the boat, as happened with the famous stray beluga named Hvaldimir by the people of Hammerfest, a community in Norway. They have been taking care of his safety since he turned up there in 2019, wearing a harness that may have been used to carry a Russian surveillance camera.
Explore the pristine Arctic wilderness responsibly and ethically in Svalbard. Or to experience whales and other wildlife in both Canada and Greenland, take a trip to the Arctic circle. Alternatively, you could discover the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, and untouched landscapes in the world in Antarctica. And there are countless other options to travel responsibly in the regions—just ask Polartours.
Learn more about sustainable travel with Polartours here.