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Thawing of the Polar Travel Market

A rise in accessibility to the polar travel Arctic and Antarctica is offering consumers new ways to experience polar destinations.

However, with tourism on the rise in these regions, so too is the impact on the environment and brands are coming up with unique, creative and sustainable solutions to protect these areas of the planet.

  • The volume of travellers from China in search of the Northern Lights has increased by just over 400% in 2017 compared with 2016 (source:Ctrip)
  • The volume of people visiting Antarctica between 2016 and 2017 rose by 15% compared to the previous season, and will continue to grow a further 5% in 2018 (source:International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO))
  • Alaska is the most popular domestic location for US travellers in 2018, up from fifth place in 2017 source:Travel Leaders Group). This echoes the need for people’s desire to return to nature, away from screens and tech products.

Why are the polar regions gaining popularity?

  • Accessibility – Polar regions are more accessible and will continue to be, the main reason being that cruise companies are allowing customers to reach previously unattainable places.
  • Chinese market – As the government and Chinese people continue to show keen interest in polar regions, travel from this market is forecast to continue growth.
  • Come one and all – Polar regions were historically reserved for adventurous explorers and mountaineers. With new accommodation styles, glamping and luxury options the polar regions have opened to a wider audience.
  • Unique experiences – Arctic and Antarctica offer a unique and varied experience. They are also offered as bucket-list or ‘collectors’ items’ which aren’t financially accessible to everyone.
  • Sustainability – As popularity grows for polar regions, so too must the commitment to providing travel which adheres to a sustainable approach.

How easy is polar travel?

Travel to the Arctic and Antarctica is on the rise, greatly fuelled by cruises. According to data from the National Ocean Economics Program, only 7,952 cruise passengers passed through Iceland in 1990. By 2016, that had risen to a quarter of a million a year.

In Alaska, 2018’s most popular domestic location for US travellers, cruise ships are now larger to accommodate demand. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Alaska reports that between 2015 and 2018, average cruise ship tonnage increased by 18%, and capacity up by 14%. Not great for hotels, but it certainly puts a smile on the faces of cruise operators.

Luxury French cruise line Ponant, is riding the waves of popularity by launching two expedition ships, Le Lapérouse and Le Champlain, to accommodate the increasing market.

As a result of this tourism injection, a new wave of modern and unique luxury hotels are opening. Most recently is the Arctic Bath Hotel and Spa, a floating hotel on the Lule River, which allows customers to enjoy hot saunas and cold baths, whilst watching the Northern Lights. Well, it ticks the box for me.

Another example is Sheldon Chalet in Alaska which offers a luxurious experience, high above the world at 6,000 feet, under the watchful eye of Mount Denali. Now even the common man without mountaineering or hiking skills can enjoy experiences which were previously unobtainable. ‘Having the Sheldon Chalet as a base of operations changes the risk/reward equation to favour reward,’ Marne Sheldon, co-founder of the Chalet, tells LS:N Global. ‘At the end of a beautiful day on Denali guests can now retreat to stunning views from their bedroom window instead of in a sleeping bag in a tent. And, should a storm pass through during a visit, no longer are they something to be feared on Denali. Instead, they are to be revelled in and observed from the comfort of the Chalet.’ How amazing does a hot shower at 6,000 feet sound?

 Sheldon Chalet

New polar travel movements come with new responsibilities

Tourism comes with an environmental cost, especially to regions previously spared from mass-tourism.

In April 2018 a report was presented to the Icelandic government by Minister for Tourism, Industry and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún Gylfadóttir, stating how the country had reached its tolerance limit for tourism and was approaching dangerous levels. Research has also revealed that cruises can be more damaging to lung health than the world’s most populated cities.

In this fragile environment, now is the time for tourism and hospitality brands to show their commitment to sustainability. ‘What’s important here is that extreme climates usually bring about extreme nature – and extreme nature experiences attract visitors. But extreme environments also entail a large amount of responsibility,’ Zenul Khan, senior architect at architecture firm Snøhetta, told LS:N Global. The firm is working on Svart, the world’s first energy-positive hotel in Norway’s Arctic Circle, scheduled for launch in 2021. The strategic design will see the hotel consuming 85% less energy than traditional hotels and produce its own energy. This has been described as ‘an absolute must in this precious Arctic environment’.

Another company looking to redefine sustainability in the Arctic region are Longyearbyen (Norway), is Polar Permaculture. Currently, it is the only source of fresh food on Svalbard Island and seeks to provide a sustainable solution in the harsh conditions. This same process can be used in other extreme environments around the world such as Churchill in Canada.

‘It is important for brands to contribute to setting up systems that deal with issues created by the increase in tourism. It’s not enough just to be aware,’ Benjamin Vidmar, creative director of Polar Permaculture, told LS:N Global. ‘We’re working to create a circular economy here in Longyearbyen that will be an example of possibilities to the world. It is definitely changing perspectives [for visitors of the region], but not enough to attract investors. We need more in order to scale up our operations and take things to the next level.’

Antarctica We need sustainable practices so we are not upsetting the careful balance between nature and wildlife.

China’s desire for polar travel

The Chinese travel market is helping to drive the influx of polar tourism. A recent report suggested that China is the second-largest demographic of consumers to Antarctica after the US, accounting for 12% of the total in 2016 (source: IAATO). In the Arctic, that figure is estimated to be even larger, at between 25% and 50%. Overall, Chinese travellers to the region have increased by almost 40 times between 2008 and 2016, according to IAATO.

In October 2017 a partnership was formed between Alibaba’s travel brand and Hurtigruten to launch China-exclusive 2019 cruises to Antarctica. ‘Expedition cruising is one of the fastest-growing segments in the travel industry, and China is one of the most dynamic travel markets in the world,’ said Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, in a statement. ‘Hurtigruten is a very good fit for Chinese guests, offering active and unique adventures to some of the world’s most spectacular destinations.’

With so many Chinese travellers visiting polar regions, the government is keen to explore this opportunity. In January, China released its first official Arctic policy white paper, revealing plans to encourage brands to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages with the goal of building a Polar Silk Road.

As well as presenting an opportunity for financial benefits, the white paper references China’s goals for sustainable development in the Arctic through technological innovation and environmental protection, and to preserve its social culture and historic traditions.

Watch this space.

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