New Tourist Threat to European High Arctic

by Alan Small, Department of Geography, University of Dundee

The increase in commercial expedition cruising is placing further stress on vulnerable environments in remote areas. Recent years has seen its intensification on Svalbard and its beginnings on Franz Josef Land. While expedition cruising has a part to play in the sustainable development of the European Arctic islands, policies need to be developed to minimise the environmental impact of expansion of the industry.

Over the past two decades, an increasingly affluent public has encouraged the international tourist industry to develop ever more exotic destinations and the cruise sector of this market has been an important player in this expansion. Not only are traditional foci having to cope with both an increasing number of ever larger ships, but also a relatively new area of expedition cruising has evolved. Expedition cruising utilises small ships generally with around one hundred passengers or less, which can approach coasts inaccessible to larger vessels and by using zodiacs, and occasionally helicopters, can land passengers in isolated areas where there are no facilities. Almost by definition it follows that significant numbers of people are going to be taken to virtually undisturbed areas of either great natural beauty, historical interest or scientific value. In practice, areas of ecological or historical importance are most appealing. In areas where landing sites are limited, the impact on these often fragile environments is likely to be significant if uncontrolled expansion is allowed to continue. In the past, tour operators have met the demand for an ‘Arctic Experience’ by offering Alaska, Greenland or Antarctica. In Europe Svalbard has filled this niche since the second half of the nineteenth century, but with the end of the Cold War a whole new dimension has been added with the possibility of expedition cruising to the Russian islands of Franz Josef Land, where the environmental impact is likely to be much more serious (fig 1).


The Norwegian current, a branch of the North Atlantic Drift, ensures that much of the west and part of the north coast of Svalbard are ice free in the summer months. The cold East Svalbard current, however, tends to sweep drift ice round the southern tip of Spitzbergen, making access to the shore line as far north as Bellsund uncertain. Pack-ice, even in summer, makes access to the north-east and east coasts difficult, therefore most cruising activity takes place in the north-west from Bellsund to Wijdefjord. It was this access to higher latitudes than could be gained anywhere else in the world, accompanied by the majestic scenery of an actively glaciated mountainous area, that drew the first cruise ships to the region in the late-nineteenth century. The islands became the base for a number of polar expeditions which further encouraged the northern tourist industry. Except for two breaks during the war years, it has continued to the present time, when between 30 and 40 large ships and 5 to 7 expedition vessels visit the islands each year. The big ships have little environmental impact, mainly landing passengers at the research-based settlement of Ny Alesund or the mining settlements of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and occasionally at Pyramiden. The only unsettled area which gets intensive use from large vessels is the beach on the moraine jutting out into the south side of Magdalenafjord, where between 13,000 and 17,000 passengers are landed for barbecues each year. A few attempt the rough walk up the nearby valley and a trapper’s wife has established a tent where she sells postcards and souvenirs. The Norwegian authorities have found it necessary to base a single policeman on the beach during the summer months largely to minimise environmental damage, and to ensure that all litter is removed by visitors. Whaler’s graves are exposed on the higher part of the moraine, which is also the nesting area of a large colony of somewhat vicious Arctic terns which deter most visitors from approaching the graves and the memorial.

Expedition cruise operators market packages which give their customers an alternative to the standard ports of call and can land passengers wherever it is possible to get a zodiac ashore. The chosen points will reflect the interests of the leaders and experts aboard. Figure 2 shows the sites most commonly targeted by expedition cruisers. Svalbard is well-endowed with large bird colonies and boasts over 160 species. To date they have not been notably harmed by visitors, but the practice of sounding the ship’s siren to raise the birds off their nests is to be deplored. Other wildlife foci are the herd of about 1,000 reindeer of the Reinsdyrflya peninsula, and the walrus sanctuary on the pebble island of Moffen where approach is restricted to 300m. It is at the historical sites that increasing numbers of tourists on foot will have the greatest impact. The grossly exaggerated accounts of the scale of the whaling station at Smeerenburg (Blubbertown) on Amsterdamoya are well-known to most serious Arctic visitors which makes the site a popular landing. Sometimes it is the nationality of the passengers which determines which whaling station site is selected for a visit. Erosion and the permafrost conditions mean that artifacts appear at the surface and graves become exposed and, although all historical artifacts are legally protected, the temptation to take a souvenir is too great for some travellers. Less frequently visited are sites of geological interest such as fossil-rich areas, where the potential for environmental loss is serious, or the only area of warm springs on Svalbard at Bockfjord.

Sites visited by expedition cruises are by definition almost invariably unpopulated and despite strict legal controls existing for the protection of these areas, it is impossible to police them and enforce the law. It falls to cruise operators, therefore, to plan carefully so that sites are not overused and to cruise leaders and experts to control and restrain participants. Many find this difficult with articulate passengers who have spent several thousand pounds per head on which the tour company depends for its profits. To date the increasing environmental pressures have not been too great, but any significant increase may lead the Norwegian authorities to consider ways of limiting access to Svalbard waters of ships and operators that fail to observe the strict environmental code. This, however, may be impractical in terms of Article 3 of the Spritzbergen Treaty, which enshrines Norwegian sovereignty of the archipelago, but also guarantees access for commercial activities, notably mining, to all treaty signatories.

Franz Josef Land

Ice conditions ensure that access to Franz Josef Land is much more difficult than in Svalbard. The Trans Polar Drift keeps the north-eastern part of the archipelago ice bound all the year round, but the southern edge of the pack-ice varies dramatically from year to year. For about one month in most summers, Northbrook Island is accessible by ships without major ice-breaking capabilities as is the southern part of the British Channel.

On very rare occasions it is possible to reach Teplitz Bay on Rudolph Island, which was the northerly base for several expeditions. From this camp their final attempts to reach the North Pole were made. Alteration in the wind direction can, however, create remarkably sudden changes in the ice conditions. Straits can be blocked, open water channels closed and ice pushed against the foreshore which is frequently steep, terminating in rock or ice-cliffs with few landing places. As the accounts of the explorers reveal, ships could be trapped quite unexpectedly, though with modern weather forecasting this is now much less likely. The difficulty of getting on land is enhanced, even in open water conditions, by the tendency for some fixed ice, and more frequently drift-ice to remain along the shore even in summer.

Physiographically, Franz Josef Land is much less spectacular than Svalbard, being essentially a vast tableland, rarely rising above 300m, which has been dissected into some 191 islands. Eighty-five per cent of the land is overlain by ice, with many islands totally covered giving a smooth dome-like appearance, the gentle gradients reflecting the underlying horizontally-bedded geological structures. Tourists are, therefore, attracted by the exotic nature of the islands, the wildlife and the explorers’ camp sites, rather than by the scenery. Many simply want to have enjoyed a true high Arctic experience. As Figure 3 demonstrates, there are far fewer places where passengers are likely to put ashore than in Svalbard, with greater pressure on an even more fragile environment as numbers increase.

The archipelago was discovered by Payer and Weyprecht in 1873 when their ship was trapped in the ice as they tried to round the north of Novaya Zemlya in the search for the elusive north-east passage. The northward drift in the ice took them to Wilczek Land. Lying less than 1,000km from the North Pole, the islands became the natural base for a series of well-publicised expeditions. As in Svalbard, this activity attracted early cruising vessels, mainly private yachts, as difficulty of access effectively ruled out commercial tourism at this stage.

The Soviet Union gained sovereignty of the archipelago in 1926 and from the 1930s until 1990 it was a closed area to Westerners. With the development of aircraft and, more recently intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Arctic became a strategically sensitive area for the great powers. The Soviet Union maintained a massive military presence on the Kola peninsula and the open water between North Norway, Svalbard and Iceland was of major significance to the USSR, being the only access to the North Atlantic and the eastern seaboard of the United States which does not involve passage through narrow straits. There is little doubt that the continued Russian coal mining on Svalbard has more to do with strategic perceptions rather than economics, while their activities in Franz Josef Land reflect the fact that the shortest route between Russia and the major cities of the United States lies over the Arctic. A varying number of meteorological and ‘observation’ posts, such as the Krenkel station on Hayes Island and Nagurskoye on Alexander Island have been maintained. During the closed period, at least one Russian tourist ship, the Vitslav Varovsky, visited the islands in 1971. The end of the Cold War has not only meant that Franz Josef Land is now accessible, but also that the Russians are extremely keen to grasp any opportunity to earn hard currency from the tourist potential of the Arctic. Small ice-strengthened research ships and ferries have been made available to the international cruise market at relatively low costs by western standards and huge nuclear powered ice-breakers equipped with helicopters are available to ensure not only that passengers can reach their objectives and get ashore but guarantee that the expedition ships do not become trapped in the ice.

In terms of wildlife attractions, walrus and polar bears are almost guaranteed to appear, as are various species of whale. Lack of contact with human beings ensures that walrus are unconcerned by zodiacs approaching within a few metres of their ice-flow, though one zodiac was rendered useless recently, following an attack by an angry bull. Polar bears are more circumspect at the ice edge, but can come within 50m of a ship. Normally, the impact of expedition cruising is unlikely to have much effect on such wildlife contact, but the number of ships is increasing - between 5 and 7 being recorded annually in recent years. A worrying development was a report that one vessel used its helicopter to encourage a polar bear and her cubs to within camera range of the cruise ship. Similarly, helicopter activity is likely to be detrimental to some of the spectacular bird colonies, the best known of which is on Rubini Rock, on the north-west coast of Hooker Island. Franz Josef Land does have some huge bird colonies but, perhaps fortunately, many of them are in areas largely inaccessible to expedition cruises at present. Only 38 species have been recorded, a smaller list than Svalbard, which may reflect the harsher environment but it more likely to be due to the lack of observers.

Virtually all visitors will attempt to land at Cape Flora on Northbrook Island where the bird-limed soils yield a rich, colourful flora of mosses, lichens and some thirty-seven species of Arctic flowering plants in the few weeks of summer when the active layer of the permafrost thaws. Careless walking in this area could and does lead to damage to the vegetation from which it will take many years to recover. Cape Flora, being the most accessible point in the archipelago, became the base, or at least the major depot, for several explorers. The foundations of Jackson’s and Leigh Smith’s camps are still visible today as well as a few graves, contributing to the historical interest of the site. Almost all the other sites indicated on Figure 3 have remains from the exploration period, some of the most extensive being on Hooker Island where the Russian explorer Sedov over-wintered in 1913-14. A substantial meteorological station was established here in 1929 and maintained until 1963. The staff were abandoned in 1941 and survived until contact was re-established at the end of the war. The visible monuments include huts, ski-plane hangers and graves. Three huts were refurbished for the 1991 Russian-Norwegian-Polish expedition. With so much timber around, it seems to be only a matter of time before some irresponsible group starts a fire and causes irreparable damage to this historic site.

As in Svalbard, and indeed other parts of the world where expedition cruising is being developed, the responsibility for limiting environmental damage must rest heavily on the cruise leaders in these vulnerable, unpopulated, unpoliced areas.


While the Norwegian authorities on Svalbard have a strict policy on environment conservation, no matter that it is difficult or impossible to police, the Russians, in the current economic and political climate, are under increasing pressure to encourage more and more tourists to Franz Josef Land and their other Arctic Islands. In commercial terms, the Russian territory offers new and excellent opportunities for expedition cruising, but the nature of the landscape and the historical and biological emphasis concentrates shore landings to a very restricted number of locations, placing increasing pressure on the very fragile and vulnerable Arctic botanical environments and endangering the historical remains.

Land-based tourism is not an option on Franz Josef Land, though it may become increasingly important in Svalbard where the long-term future of the coal mines must be questioned. At present, visitors are constrained by the lack of accommodation and the limited ferry and helicopter links between the settlements. Venturing outside the settlements requires an adequate firearm and the necessary skill to deal with a polar bear attack. Small numbers, therefore, join well-equipped trekking expeditions or in the winter months, skiing or snow scooter tours. Norway will always want to maintain a population in Svalbard for political reasons and if mining is no longer practical on economic grounds, tourism is virtually the only labour-intensive alternative. A very powerful environmental lobby will ensure that infrastructural links are kept to an absolute minimum and, therefore, expedition cruising will remain an important part of the local tourist industry with the operators having to accept responsibility for ensuring that minimum damage results. Both the Russian and Norwegian authorities may well have to consider limitations to the expansion of expedition cruising before it is too late. At first sight the former seem in the better position to exert controls in that their actions are not restricted by international treaty and access to Franz Josef Land is, with the exception of Cape Flora, almost entirely dependent on the services of Russian ice-breakers. However, it is precisely these vessels which generate the much sought after hard currencies.

In recent years it has been recognised that the Arctic is characterised by segmentalisation and marginalisation by the eight national governments involved. In each case, the region is very much part of a remote periphery which needs massive investment but yields few votes yet a potential resource richness, particularly in fish and oil, have tended to lead to the defence of national boundaries and a lack of international co-operation. Despite the end of the Cold War the geographical and strategic realities of Europe’s Arctic islands will remain for many years to come, but there are now more genuine prospects of international co-operation in the Arctic and tourism will be an integral part of the future development. This could well take place within the context of the concept of the Barents region which was formalised at a meeting of the foreign ministers of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and European Commission in Kirkenes in January 1993. Despite the benefits which this political and economic co-operation may bring, it must be recognised that in the islands any form of commercial development will bring conflict with environmental issues. Tourism, and particularly expedition tourism, is likely to be one of the key sustainable developments in both Svalbard and Franz Josef Land and, therefore, policies for the industry need to be addressed now rather than after serious environmental degradation takes place.