They are the big new toys of expedition cruising. And adventure lines have invested big dollars in submarines and helicopters, so passengers can see the world from above and below.
But environmentalists are worried that journeys to the pristine worlds of the Arctic could actually be damaging the very experiences that adventure companies are selling. And countries like Norway are now imposing restrictions on visitors to the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, banning cruise companies from offering helicopters and submarine rides amid growing concern about the impact on its fragile environment.
Scenic’s ground-breaking luxury adventure yacht Eclipse is among those now caught in the debate over just what should be allowed to enhance the experience of Norwegian surrounds.
The line is offering a 12-day tour around Svalbard next year onboard the Eclipse. The ship’s submarine, the Scenic Neptune can submerge up to 300 metres, carrying six passengers plus the pilot on swivel chairs for sightseeing through two acrylic spheres.
Scenic asked for permission to use the submarine – offering to ensure that it only dived below the ship to limit its environmental footprint. But the Norwegian Government has now called for a halt to these journeys.
Scenic has been in the vanguard of improving the experience of passengers, who want to see and taste first hand these exciting environments. But it is also conscious that it has a responsibility to preserve the regions of the world that support its business.
The company told Cruise Passenger of the Norwegian decision: “Scenic Group complies with the relevant guidelines and regulatory approvals in the counties that we operate in. This is clearly communicated in our marketing materials, brochures and website, including the operational Terms and Conditions for the on board helicopters and submarine.
“If we do not have the required permits then this is noted as per the following clause: Helicopters are unable to operate in South Georgia, Svalbard and Russia. Submarine is unable to operate in US waters and Svalbard.
“Scenic Group is committed to ensuring compliance and responsibility to preserve these pristine regions, unique natural wonders and wildlife are protected for future generations. We will continue to work closely with the relevant authorities in Norway and Svalbard, to operate within the current regulations in and around this beautiful region.”
Viking Expeditions, which is also set to launch next year, will also have submarines onboard its new fleet. Crystal Endeavor also has a submarine.
Along with the ban on submarines and helicopters, the Norwegian government last week also revealed proposals to limit the number of passengers on cruise ships sailing to protected areas of Svalbard to 200 per vessel and to confine the number of locations where they can disembark to 42.
The rules also state that a minimum distance of 500 metres from polar bears and the use of drones is prohibited. Motor traffic on sea ice has been banned after March 1 out of consideration for seals and polar bears and a five-knot speed limit has been set near bird colonies during bird season.
The Norwegian Environment Agency said the number of tourist visits to Svalbard had risen from 29,600 in 1996 to 124,000 in 2019.
The number of vessels equipped with helicopters is low but likely to increase, according to the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO).
They include Ultramarine, the latest addition to the fleet of cruise operator Quark Expeditions, which boasts two twin-engine helicopters and is described by the company as a “game-changing new vessel designed to go beyond the predictable in polar expedition”.
Arctic tourism covers Svalbard and the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen, Greenland, Arctic Canada, the Russian Arctic National Park and Iceland. Helicopter rides are permitted in many other areas including Greenland.