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Melting ice opens floodgates to Arctic

Press Association logoPress Association 21/09/2016 Sarah Marshall

A near-fabled route sought by explorers for 250 years, the Northwest Passage, linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via the Canadian High Arctic, is rapidly becoming a tourist attraction.

On September 19, Crystal Cruises' 69,000-tonne, 1000-plus passenger ship Crystal Serenity, completed a 32-day trip from Anchorage, Alaska to New York City, making it the first large luxury cruise ship to complete the journey that was first successfully navigated by Roald Amundsen from 1903-1906.

Billed "the ultimate expedition for the explorer", it was declared a success by the company, who will be rolling out the same itinerary in 2017.

Aside from an escort by icebreaker RRS Ernest Shackleton in the northernmost portion of the route, Crystal Serenity managed to travel through the Arctic with ease - something that wouldn't have been possible 100 years ago.

But should this newly available access really be celebrated?

Rapidly reducing sea ice in the Arctic region is responsible for the late summer opening of straits and channels once impenetrable to even the hardiest explorers; a result of climate change that carries it's own disastrous implications. It's hardly something to smile about.

A question mark also hangs above the ethics of travel in remote, wilderness regions occupied by small indigenous communities, where existence usually hangs in a delicate balance.

While the Northwest Passage is hardly a mass-market destination, the number of visitors, fuelled by adventure, curiosity and historical interest, is rising.

Expedition cruise company One Ocean says its 13-day Classic Northwest Passage departure regularly sells out.

The Canadian Arctic is a vast area covering approximately 1.42 million square km, but an increasing volume of visitors will inevitably have impact. Currently, expedition ships such as One Ocean's 96-passenger Akademik Ioffe carry out small-scale operations sensitive to the environment.

Earlier this month, the discovery of HMS Terror, one of the ships belonging to British explorer John Franklin's failed 1845 expedition, shone a new spotlight on the region, further raising its profile.

Fortunately, modern technology and sophisticated equipment means similar events are unlikely to befall tourists. Of greater concern is what the future for tourism in the Northwest Passage might hold.

Michael Byers, a professor at the University of Columbia, who lectured onboard Crystal Serenity, says he's not especially worried about that particular ship. "What I'm worried about is that it opens the door to dozens, possibly hundreds, of other large cruise ships in the years to come," he told Boston Radio Station WBUR.

Sound pollution, which can prove damaging to whales, and transmission of disease to remote communities are two possible problematic effects of increased tourism.

Then there's the question of intention. What is it that's really driving people to visit these places and is their reasoning valid?

Byers describes a concerning trend towards "extinction tourism... people going to places to see things before they disappear".

But by going, he says, they can, in part, "actually contribute to that process".

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