The Arctic could help keep the cruise industry afloat – but can cruises return the favour?

As adventure trips are reviving cruises, the environment could be at risk.

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The Northwest Passage – an arctic sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – once sent sailors to frosty deaths. But this summer, sea ice is so low that a luxury cruise liner is bringing butler service to its icebergs. 

The Crystal Serenity set off from Alaska on 16 August and is now about half way through its month-long voyage to New York. The ship's 14 decks and 1,060 passengers make it the largest passenger ship ever to embark upon the full crossing. 

Feng Shui spas, Armani shopping outlets, Nobu chefs and an on-board golf simulator also make it the most extravagant. At between £16,000- £85,000 a booking, the trip is four times the price of the average cruise ticket. 

But expedition leader and voyage consultant, Tim Soper, believes the cruise could be the start of wider Arctic tourism and a new green ethos: “It can engage people who otherwise wouldn’t really get to know the Arctic – and help them care a little more.”

So as Arctic ice levels approach another record low, is this a pioneering first for green tourism? Or are we cruising to eco-disaster?

Arctic cruises are the culmination of a long tradition off the grand tour. Starting in the eighteenth century, young and wealthy Europeans sought to escape the daily tedium by taking in the world’s landmark cities, sublime landscapes and most extravagant parties. Cruising finally opened this opulence and exoticism to the masses in the late 1960s.

In recent years, the industry has struggled to maintain its glamour bookings tailed off as it developed a reputation for being a restrictive way to travel, or a stuffy pastime for pensioners. But luxury adventure” tours look set to reverse this trend. There are 27 new ocean, river and speciality ships that are scheduled to make their first voyages in 2016, and tickets for the Northwest Passage cruise sold out in 48 hours.

In the context of this new appetite for thrill-seeking, the risks of Arctic travel are inseparable from its appeal. The Serenity's safety escort boat  Britain’s RRS Ernest Shackleton  even doubles as a carrier for expedition toys, including two helicopters for over the top tours and “serendipitous exploration”.

The melting sea ice adds to this sense of drama; the Arctic's last-chance-to-see-it appeal could thus help keep the industry afloat. But whether cruising can return the favour to the environment is another question.

A spokesperson for the ship tells the New Statesman that: “For the Northwest Passage itinerary, Crystal has gone above and beyond the required environmental standards.” But a number of environmentalists have derided the ship’s green narrative as disingenuous. They point to the voyage’s risk of oil spills, wildlife disturbance and sewage pollution. There is also cruising's contribution to global CO2 emissions and the encouragement that the Serenity’s safe passage could give to the rest of the, poorly regulated, shipping industry.

If marine transport were a country it would already be among the world's top 20 polluters, while the world’s biggest liner pumps out more sulphur than several million cars.

Visits to local communities – “often with champagne waiting at the other end” – may boost economies but will also dwarf them in size and wealth. Concerns voiced by residents of Pond Inlet, an Inuit community on an island in the far north of Canada, about previous tourism include inappropriate photography, minimal spending on local goods (especially by Europeans) and a lack of respect for subsistence lifestyles.

Crystal Cruises have attempted to counter these criticisms by running the Serenity on low-emission diesel, not dumping untreated sewage, and upgrading to a high-efficiency incinerator. But there is still a long way to go before the practices of this top-end service become industry standard.

The sad fact is that, in general, sustainable options – a fitting metaphor being the Serenity’s serving of Wagyu beef steak – too often come at an unsustainable price for mass-market consumption.

In this respect at least, the final frontier of Arctic travel has very much yet to be crossed.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.