What the Future of Polar Travel and Arctic Cruises Looks Like - Condé Nast Traveler
Posted: 29 May 2020 11:22 AM PDT
This time last year, Antarctic tourism was at an all-time high. More than 56,000 people traveled to the southernmost continent during the 2018-2019 season—a 53 percent jump from 2014-2015 data, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). With the numbers of visitors projected to reach 85,000 in the next few years, outfitters scrambled to keep up with demand while simultaneously managing the environmental impact.
And now? "You're looking at how the companies are even going to survive," says Denise Landau, former executive director of the IAATO and a vaunted member of the American Polar Society.
Tour operators and cruise lines in the Arctic are facing a similar crisis. "At least 50 percent of the 2020 Arctic trips have been canceled or postponed," says Lynn Cross, co-founder of Polar Cruises. Many Polar Cruises guests have pushed their 2020 trip to 2021; others are waiting until a vaccine is developed before rebooking.
Occupancy numbers are far from cruise lines' only concern: the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators' geographic range spans from the Russian Arctic National Park to Arctic Canada, including the islands of Svalbard and Jan Mayen in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, says Malik Milfeldt, the AECO's acting communications manager. "It is either not allowed currently or very complicated to travel to these places without being subject to quarantine rules that make tourism practically impossible," says Milfeldt. While Iceland has announced plans to re-open to travelers by mid-June, the Canadian government closed the Canadian Arctic to cruise travel entirely for 2020. The status of other destinations remains fluid.
"While we were disappointed, we wholeheartedly supported these measures," says Cedar Swan, CEO of Arctic cruise specialist Adventure Canada. "We visit many small communities that, due to their remoteness, are quite vulnerable. The health and safety of the places we visit is our top priority."
Operators in Antarctica and the Arctic are looking to the IAATO and AECO for guidance, while integrating CDC guidelines into everyday travel experiences. How can travelers socially distance when whale watching in a Zodiac raft or visiting a penguin colony? Right now, there are more questions than answers.
Colin O'Brady, an endurance athlete known for his record-breaking Antarctic expeditions, has a hard time imagining any expedition travel in 2020, given the logistics of adhering to social distancing rules. "Even though the polar regions have very little population density, the most common ways to travel there require close proximity to other people—cruise ships, small cargo planes, helicopters, group cook tents," he says.
To understand how polar tourism may change in the future, we interviewed more than a dozen tour operators, adventurers, and conservationists. These are their predictions for what lies ahead.
The desire to avoid crowds could (eventually) be a boon to polar operators
Everyone is going stir-crazy sheltering at home, but a wariness of congested cities may inspire some travelers to seek out ultra-remote experiences. Antarctica is currently Intrepid Travel's number one destination for new bookings, both globally and from North American travelers, according to Antarctic operations manager Will Abbott.
Tessum Weber of Weber Arctic, a family-run adventure outfitter that operates two wilderness lodges in Northern Canada, plus a skiing basecamp on Baffin Island, has also noticed a surge in interest. "COVID-19 has pushed people to explore wild regions that have yet to be shaped by humans," Weber says. "The thirst for untamed places only seems to be growing."
The challenge, of course, will be balancing a potential boomlet in tourism with protecting Mother Nature. "As demand increases, you'll get more people with little experience in these regions negatively impacting the environment," Weber says. "Our focus is and will remain on ensuring people leave with a new appreciation of these environments, and how to protect them for future generations."
The gateway countries could change
Before the pandemic, Antarctica was accessible via Christchurch; Hobart, Tasmania; Punta Arenas, Chile; Ushuaia, Argentina; and Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Some countries that serve as embarkation points are still on lockdown, closed to foreign visitors, or imposing two-week quarantines.
"There is an interconnectedness in Antarctica which, under normal circumstances, makes for a collaborative environment which enables science, tourism, heritage management, and environmental conservation to thrive," says Camilla Nichol, chief executive of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), a nonprofit focused on conservation. But some of those relations have been strained as a result of the pandemic.
"One of the largest hurdles we face is global travel restrictions, and whether we can create a safe travel corridor that allows our guests to move to and from our expeditions," says Intrepid's Abbott. "Government travel restrictions around the world could cause significant disruption to the Antarctic 2020-2021 season if our clients are not able to safely leave their home countries.
Landau experienced this first-hand in March, when she was helping negotiate the return of cruisers barred from disembarkation points in Argentina and Chile. "For an Antarctic season to function well, there has to be a lot of cooperative, bilateral discussion between operators, politicians, cities, mayors, and the ports," Landau says. "Argentina was one of the hardest countries to work with, whereas Uruguay and the Falkland Islands were amazing." The latter two took a humanitarian view of the crisis, allowing ships to dock and passengers to immediately board charter flights back to their home countries. Argentina, meanwhile, sealed its borders—even to its own citizens.
While Uruguay and the Falklands may be easier to work with, they present other logistical challenges. Ships departing from Uruguay have to travel twice as far as those leaving Chile or Argentina; extra nights onboard would drive up operational costs. The Falkland Islands are closer to Antarctica than Uruguay, but its airport can only receive a limited number of flights.
Health and safety protocols for foreign arrivals are still being ironed out. Some sources we spoke with expect to see temperature screenings or COVID-19 tests at airports; others believe luxury outfitters may try to bypass commercial flight restrictions altogether by chartering private planes. Which means, of course, polar travel could get even more elite.
Antarctica has always been viewed as a "once-in-a-lifetime luxury," says Michael Pullman, Head of Marketing for adventure travel company Wild Frontiers. After a year of being cooped up inside, "many people may feel that it is [finally] time to tick off that place they had always wanted to visit." UKAHT's Nichol wouldn't be surprised to see an uptick in the independent superyacht market, either, as well as more interest in land-based experiences—"an exclusive market, but as remote as you can get."
Safety of travelers is paramount, but so is protecting local communities
The downside to visiting some of the most isolated corners on earth is the absence of medical facilities. Testing and treatment resources are extremely limited above the Arctic Circle and below the Drake Passage, and evacuation is never a picnic. Spreading disease to at-risk communities is an even bigger threat. "Travelers will have to realize that it is not only about when they feel comfortable to travel, but also when other communities are comfortable allowing them to visit," says Ange Wallace, a Virtuoso travel advisor and co-founder of Wallace Pierson Travel.
This issue weighs heavily on Nicolas Dubreuil, an expedition leader with PONANT. "Communities in the polar regions are very sensitive to certain viruses," Dubreuil says. "We will have to resume visits with infinite caution and we may have to avoid contact with indigenous populations for some time." On the flip side, Dubreuil says tourism is a vital source of income, and operators must find new solutions to support local communities without endangering their citizens.
One idea floated by AECO's Milfeldt was buying locally made crafts in bulk and selling them onboard the ships. Another was to facilitate educational presentations or entertainment from a safe distance. Beach and nature landings could also become the predominant calling experience for the foreseeable future.
"I hope [COVID-19] affords local populations the opportunity to be more discerning and aware of the operators coming to the region, and to rebuild the visitation structure in a way that is an empowering experience for local hosts," says Adventure Canada's Swan. She also hopes it serves as a wake-up call for the tourism industry, inspiring its constituents to act with renewed purpose and reimagine their roles as stewards of the environment.
Speaking of, the temporary shutdown could be good for the environment
Like every destination enduring a lockdown, we've already seen the environmental benefits of lower emissions, fewer vessels plying the waters, and less feet on the ground. Nearly every operator we spoke with viewed COVID-19 as a reckoning—or, as Wild Frontiers' Pullman put it, "a drastic temporary solution to problems of overtourism."
"The polar cruise industry has been in the crosshairs of critics for some time now, and I see this as an opportunity for ship companies to improve their commitment to sustainability," says Jeff Bonaldi, CEO of adventure travel company The Explorer's Passage. It may even lead to a rise in citizen science programming.
AECO's Milfeldt agrees. "Those of us who live and breathe the Arctic as a unique polar part of the world—with its amazing ecosystem, wildlife, icebergs, glaciers, and sparsely distributed populations—have always known that it is vulnerable and that we need to take care of it," he says. "COVID-19 only enhances our belief that you have to do your part to protect and preserve it by setting the highest possible operating standards, and educating your guests to leave only footprints behind."
We're reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find all of our coronavirus coverage and travel resources here.
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