On Tuesday, a luxury cruise ship carrying more than 1,000 moneyed passengers and a crew of 600-plus will kick off a voyage that will take it through the Arctic's Northwest Passage, which was once thought impassable. Climate change has freed the strait of much of the ice that would have made the massive ship's journey an impossibility in the past.
A tour through landscapes and indigenous communities actively being disrupted by climate change could be called "ecotourism," but critics have another word for the US-based Crystal Serenity's voyage: extinction tourism.
"By actually going on this cruise, the passengers will accelerate the process of extinction," said Michael Byers, a professor of international affairs at the University of British Columbia who researches Arctic sovereignty and the environment.
The fear is that future Arctic cruises may form a kind of climate change "feedback loop"—while these trips may allow wealthy passengers to appreciate the beauty of the regions and peoples negatively affected by climate change, such voyages contribute to the environmental degradation of the same places they visit. Tickets for the sold-out cruise range in price from $30,000 to $156,000.
"Cruise ships have very large carbon footprints, and this ship in particular is an ultra-luxury cruise with large state rooms and particularly exotic and expensive foods, as well as a ship helicopter to take passengers on aerial tours," Byers said. "This is a voyage that has a particularly large impact per passenger in terms of climate change."
The Crystal Serenity already has another Northwest Passage cruise planned for 2017.
In Antarctica, large cruises have been the norm for years and environmentalists have raised many of the same concerns as critics of the Crystal Serenity's voyage. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, which regulates many of the large tours that go through the South Pole, maintained in a recent fact sheet that "no discernable impact" has been observed in Antarctica as a result of regular cruises.
"The Northwest Passage is full of islands and is quite circuitous, you have to work through not just the ice but the islands as well"
Beyond the carbon footprint of the cruise itself, however, there is a non-trivial risk of an accident at sea that could spill fuel all over a portion of the Northwest Passage and its wildlife. In 2007, an Antarctic tourist ship hit an iceberg and spilled 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel into an area containing thousands of penguins.
"The Northwest Passage is full of islands and is quite circuitous, you have to work through not just the ice but the islands as well," said Roger Rufe, former vice admiral of the US Coast Guard, on a press call. "There are poor nautical charts in the Arctic as a whole because it hasn't been surveyed for depth or hazards for years."
Due to the remoteness of the region and environmental hazards, Byers said, any rescue or oil clean-up operation would be extremely difficult to pull off.
Considering the potentially substantial risk to an already fragile and rapidly changing ecosystem, one might be wondering if any of this is worth it. If we accept that the one shining sliver of an upshot here is that rich people will understand the impacts of climate change… Well, don't hold your breath.
"I have heard the justification for the trips as widening the understanding of climate change on the part of the well-heeled, and often well-connected, passengers," Ian Stirling, a biologist at the University of Alberta who has worked as an ecotourism guide in the Antarctic, wrote me in an email.
"So far as I am aware, there has been no attempt to measure what 'increased awareness' consists of, and what, if any, subsequent response there is ito a wider audience such as in school talks, letters to politicians, radio interviews, or written articles in magazines of all sorts," Stirling continued. "I think this latter aspect is very important to pursue at a serious level at some point."
If these critics are right, then we're entering a new and seriously dystopian stage in tourism for the wealthy: gawking at nature and the people who live off of it, while actively destroying the object of their eco-voyeurism.