The top of the world
Melting ice is opening more of the Arctic Circle to travel, prompting a boom in tourism.
What do visitors find in the Arctic?
Some of the most stunning scenery on Earth, and a vast wilderness that’s largely untouched by civilization. The Arctic’s otherworldly landscape offers majestic glaciers, stunning mountain ranges, sweeping tundra, and glistening fjords. And while it may loom in the popular imagination as a frigid dead zone, the region teems with wildlife, including whales, seals, caribou, musk oxen, reindeer, and the iconic polar bear, as well as millions of fish and seabirds. There are centuries-old settlements of indigenous peoples, from the Inuits in Alaska to the Chukchi in Siberia. Summer visitors will also encounter the “midnight sun”: round-the-clock daylight, which lasts up to six months depending on the latitude. What visitors won’t find is bitter cold. The region is fairly temperate during the summer, when average high temperatures can hit the 50s—and higher.
Who is traveling to the Arctic?
A growing number of people. Warming temperatures have reduced sea ice, making waters more navigable. Media focus on melting glaciers and endangered polar bears has also drawn the world’s eye. And concerns for what lies ahead for the Arctic have brought a spike in so-called last-chance tourism. “More and more people want to see the region’s attractions before they are gone,” said Patrick Maher, who leads the University of the Arctic’s Thematic Network on Northern Tourism.
Where do tourists visit?
Alaska, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Greenland all breach the Arctic Circle; so does Iceland’s sparsely populated Grímsey Island. Alaska and Canada are particularly popular for land trekking. The former offers the option of an Arctic Circle road trip, on the 414-mile Dalton Highway, which runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, an access point to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In Canada, adventure tourists can kayak among beluga whales at the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Somerset Island, accessible via a four-hour charter flight from Yellowknife. The western coastlines of Greenland and Norway draw throngs of travelers who gawk at the fjords and glaciers; Norwegian rail reaches the coastal village of Bodø, a popular base for exploring the majestic Lofoten Islands. Perhaps the most popular Arctic destination is Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, which offers ice-capped mountains, calving glaciers, polar bears that outnumber residents in summer, and easy access by air from Oslo.
What about cruises?
Cruises are a popular option in summer, when ice melt opens shipping routes. One popular voyage runs along Norway’s western seaboard, offering staggering vistas of mountains, islands, and fjords. Others circumnavigate Svalbard and ply the waters between Greenland’s west coast and Canada’s Baffin Island. Melting ice has also led to a leap in the number of boats navigating the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by threading through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. In 2016, the Crystal Serenity became the first large-scale luxury ship to travel the route, running from Seward, Alaska, to New York City with slot machines, a driving range, a spa, and more 1,000 passengers who each paid $22,000 and up. For visitors who want to see the North Pole, the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory takes several summer runs to the globe’s pinnacle, leaving from Murmansk, Russia. On arrival, passengers partake in a champagne toast and a barbecue on the ice; they can also take a polar plunge or a ride in a hot-air balloon, if conditions permit.
Where are the Arctic’s hubs?
Some 4 million people call the Arctic home, and while many of them live in villages, there are some cities of respectable size. The largest is Murmansk, a shipping hub that’s home to some 300,000 residents, who endure 40 straight days of darkness and frigid temperatures each winter. The gritty port isn’t exactly a tourist hot spot, but it has museums, an aquarium, a puppet theater, and a philharmonic orchestra. For a more picturesque destination, there’s the Norwegian city of Tromsø, which sits 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle. A base for dog-sledding and whale-watching excursions in winter, this university town (population 70,000) offers lively cafés, galleries, and boutiques, as well as a 140-year-old brewery and the striking triangular Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965.
How is the area handling the influx of people?
As the number of Arctic tourists has risen in recent years, so has concern about their impact. Of particular concern is the proliferation of cruise ships in polar waters—vessels that have increased in size as well as number. In addition to disturbing wildlife and disrupting native villages, the ship traffic raises the specter of a devastating sewage leak or oil spill. Another nightmare scenario is an accident or malfunction that would require a rescue—a daunting undertaking in the remote and unpredictable region. But experts also cite a positive side to the tourism boom, noting that people who encounter the area’s beauty will be more inclined to advocate for its protection. “The Arctic is full of magic,” said Jackie Dawson, an associate professor of geography at the University of Ottawa. “These trips really do change people.”