Regulating the booming Arctic cruise industry is proving frustratingly difficult

Arctic regulations can be hard to navigate.
Arctic regulations can be hard to navigate.
Image: Devin Powell/NOAA via AP
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For wealthy boomers with cash to splash, luxury doesn’t necessarily look like poolside mojitos or glistening golden sands. Instead, it might involve a boat hardened against the ice, traversing the fragile wilds of the Arctic, with the chance to encounter the cliff-face of climate change from the comfort of a five-star suite.

Climate change has opened up passages in the melting ice, making it easier for ships to wind their way through the frozen North. Travelers, meanwhile, are seduced by the jaw-dropping views, the call of “experiential” tourism, and the knowledge that this may be their only chance to see this striking landscape before it melts away. For a certain sort of tourist, even the starting price tag of $12,000 for a week’s voyage isn’t a significant deterrent.

But the political complexity of the Arctic, which encompasses parts of eight different countries across three different continents, makes it frustratingly difficult to regulate the industry properly. Ships can slip from one international territory from the next, each with its own set of regulatory systems to govern everything from safety practices to preventing pollution. (The vessel’s separate registration country, which also regulates what it can and can’t do, makes this still more complicated.)

In Antarctica, it’s more straight-forward. Though many countries have made territorial claims to the Antarctic, none are recognized internationally, giving rise to the independent International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators in 1991, which sets rules in the absence of any government entity. The Arctic, with its many jurisdictions, has no real equivalent, giving rise to so-called “institutional voids,” where regulation either doesn’t exist or is inconsistent, according to a paper in the journal Annals of Tourism Research, by France- and Canada-based authors Giovany Cajaiba-Santana, Olivier Faury, and Maarouf Ramadan.

“No legitimate central authority”

For now, write Cajaiba-Santana, Faury, and Ramadan, there is “no legitimate central authority or institution to govern cruise shipping expansion in the region.”

The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, more commonly known as the Polar Code, was adopted by the the International Maritime Organization in 2017 in part to fill this gap. But two years on, it has proven contentious and incomplete, especially when it comes to cruise ships. Environmental NGOs fear the code does not go far enough to protect Arctic wildlife. Meanwhile, it fails to address a wide variety of considerations including carbon emissions, the rights of boats to use extremely toxic heavy fuel oil (HFO), or undersea noise pollution, which can disorient and distress marine mammals such as bowhead whales, belugas, seals, and walruses.

Guidelines for safety procedures, shore visits, and how to minimize environmental harms are under-regulated, or left up to cooperative organizations such as the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), which have no regulatory powers, according to the authors.

AECO is doing its best. Earlier this month, the association announced a self-imposed ban on heavy fuel oil, in a move to strengthen responsible practices. But membership to this cooperative, which is the closest thing Arctic shipping, which encompasses cruising, has to a governing body, is optional. But many tour operators choose not to be members, the authors note, which “limits the organization’s ability to dictate governance norms for the region.” Some 60 vessels from approximately 30 companies are part of the organization, they write—but hundreds more are not. (Its Antarctic counterpart, meanwhile, is much better established, with more than 100 members and affiliates,)

The limitations of the Polar Code

In putting together the Polar Code, the IMO did not consult with local communities, including Inuit and other indigenous groups. Coastal visits are often a key part of these cruises, though there are no guidelines “in relation to the interaction with local communities,” the authors note. It does not lay out best practices for interacting with animals on these coastal stops: In 2018, this void became especially apparent when an Arctic cruise ship guard shot and killed a polar bear, after it injured a fellow guard.

Despite being a feature of Polar Code negotiations, writes researcher Hendrik Schopmans, in a post for the Arctic Institute, “options to regulate so-called “grey water” discharges – that is, water from sinks and showers aboard ships – were … not incorporated into the final document.” Cruise ship passengers may generate as much as 450 liters of this chemical- and bacteria-heavy water a day.

Without proper governance, cruising companies are subject to a patchwork of different laws and guidelines. In such “fragile, hazardous, and inhospitable environments,” the authors write, there’s plenty of room for potentially tragic error.