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Arctic Becomes Tourism Hot Spot, But is that Cool?


September 23, 2007

Read Time

7 minutes


By Guatam Naik

(For a Wall Street Journal Online version of this article that includes a slideshow, please click here.)

DISKO BAY, Greenland — James Brusslan is an environmental lawyer with climate change on his mind. He cycles to the office and works at a Chicago law firm that offsets its carbon emissions. He plasters friends’ SUVs with stickers that say: “I’m changing the climate! Ask me how!”

To get a first-hand glimpse of such changes, Mr. Brusslan, 50 years old, recently spent $2,800 on a week’s camping trip here, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “I wanted to see what was happening,” he said, as he gazed at an ice fiord where a glacier was splintering into icebergs. “In 10 years, it probably will be gone.” He next plans to see the melting glaciers of Sichuan, China.

Global warming has given rise to a new niche in the booming eco-tourism business: climate tourists. These visitors seek out places where a long-term warming trend — subject of a global summit hosted by the United Nations this week — is starting to have a discernible impact. Yet some say there’s a big irony in this kind of travel: Any trip by train, plane or cruise ship pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and potentially contributes to the warming of the planet.

“What’s the point of your trip to the Maldives if the end result is that it will be drowned” because emissions from eco-tourists’ jets contribute to global warming and rising seas, says Jeff Gazzard of Aviation Environmental Federation, a United Kingdom group fighting to curtail airplane emissions. The Maldives, a string of islands in the Indian Ocean, sit about three feet above sea level and are at risk if warming effects raise ocean levels.

More than 1.5 million tourists now visit the arctic each year, up from one million in the early 1990s, according to the U.N. Longer and warmer summers keep arctic seas freer of ice flows, so cruise ships can visit places that were once inaccessible — raising other environmental concerns.

Some tourists to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the arctic hope to catch sight of new islands that have appeared as the ice sheet retreats. “They’re just rocks,” scoffs Rune Bergstroem, head of the environment department at the governor of Svalbard’s office. That didn’t stop a recent visitor from England from trying to claim one such island, going ashore and writing his bid on a baked-bean can. It was rejected.

The annual number of visitors to Svalbard has surged 33% in the past five years to about 80,000. About half arrive on cruise liners. With so many more passengers going ashore, fragile vegetation on some islands has gotten worn down. There’s a higher risk of an oil spill; a new law requires ships on the eastern part of the islands to use marine diesel instead of heavy oil.

Local wildlife is under threat, and not just from direct climate change. “Regions with polar bears were hard to access, but boats can now get there because the sea ice melts,” says Mr. Bergstroem. “There could be more conflicts between people and bears.”

Still, global warming can be a persuasive sales pitch. This month, Betchart Expeditions Inc., of Cupertino, Calif., offers a 12-day voyage to “Warming Island” near Greenland. Melting ice has revealed the long-buried island, “a compelling indicator of the rapid speed of global warming,” says Betchart’s Web site. The cost: between $5,000 and $7,000, not including flights. So far, 38 people have signed up.

Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit in Maynard, Mass., runs trips that allow people to help scientists studying coral reefs in the Bahamas and the effects of climate change on orchids in India. Its 11-day trip, “Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge” — priced between $2,849 and $4,349, not including flights — involves going to Manitoba, Canada, to monitor carbon stores in the permafrost.

Hansruedi Burgener didn’t seek out climate tourists — they found him. Last summer, hundreds trekked to his remote hostel-cum-restaurant in the Swiss Alps, because it has a clear view of a mountain called the Eiger. Noting that a warming trend had accelerated melting of glacial ice, geologists predicted part of the mountain would soon collapse. To mark the event, Mr. Burgener introduced a coffee-and-schnapps concoction called a “Rockslide.”

In July 2006, about a half-million cubic meters of the Eiger — the volume of a small skyscraper — plunged into the valley. No one was hurt, but dust from the impact blanketed the nearby resort of Grindelwald. Tourists still go there, to see where the rock fall occurred. “I don’t think climate change is good for the environment,” says Mr. Burgener. “But it’s made the hostel famous, and that’s good for me.”

There are some efforts to keep the trend from heating up. The International Ecotourism Society, based in Washington, D.C., launched a campaign called “Traveling with Climate in Mind” to help people “minimize their environmental footprint” through better use of energy and offsetting emissions.

In March, the airline SAS started a program that allows passengers to pay a fee — up to €8 for a European flight — to offset their flight-related emissions. The money is spent on a renewable-energy project. But though the airline carries more than four million passengers a month, it has registered only about 600 transactions so far.

“It’s low; we’re disappointed,” says Neils Ierek Nertun, environmental director for SAS.

Per Stuhaug, a 53-year-old consultant for International Business Machines Corp. in Copenhagen, took a recent SAS flight to visit Greenland’s vast inland ice sheet. He said he was “interested in seeing any changes since my last visit,” a 2004 camping trip. But he dismissed the airline’s carbon-offset program as a marketing gimmick and didn’t pay the fee.

Though they are hardly the main contributor to global warming, tourists interested in climate change recognize a dilemma. “I have a curiosity about these places, but going there to see them causes more damage,” says Anne Patrick, a Massachusetts schoolteacher who has visited Antarctica and Greenland. “How do you come to grips with that? I don’t have an answer.”

Most visitors to Greenland head to the town of Ilulissat, a settlement of brightly painted houses with a breathtaking view of icebergs. Scientists speculate that the iceberg that sank the Titanic originated here.

Ilulissat has become a poster child for global warming. January temperatures used to routinely hit minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but now rarely fall below minus 13 Fahrenheit. The nearest glacier, Jacobshavn, has retreated more than nine miles since 2002. The bay no longer freezes, so fishermen catch halibut all year long, depleting stocks, says Konrad Seblon, district manager of a provincial agency charged with developing tourism.

This year, the town has hosted Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Barbara Boxer, U.S. senator from California, and the president of the European Union. Up to 35,000 tourists are expected too, compared with 10,000 some five years ago. The town’s population is 5,000 people and a lot more sled dogs.

“Tourists are welcome, but we don’t want too many. And we don’t want big hotels,” says Anthon Frederiksen, Ilulissat’s mayor. “We’d like to preserve nature and our culture.”

Many visitors shell out $300 for a trip to a glacier called Eqi. When Eqi reaches the sea, large pieces “calve,” or break off, becoming icebergs. One recent afternoon, a boat filled with tourists drew near Eqi’s 250-foot-tall ice face. Suddenly, a chunk the size of a small house plunged into the waters, unleashing a 6-foot swell.

The wave slammed into the boat, rocking it hard. “That was exciting,” said Ingeborg Mathiesen, a 68-year-old Norwegian, as she gripped the guard rails. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The day before, a similar wave in Svalbard pounded a sightseeing boat and injured 17 British tourists. Next summer, Ms. Mathiesen plans to visit Svalbard, to see icebergs and polar bears. Says her husband, Erich: “We don’t want to wait five years when they may be gone.”

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