Authorities to Limit Arctic Cruises with New Regulations

New rules for polar cruises are intended to protect some of the world’s most remote and vulnerable destinations.

A snowy cliff protrudes from the water in Svalbard, Norway

New restrictions on cruises to Svalbard, Norway, go into effect on January 1, 2025.

Photo by Lloyd Woodham/Unsplash

Svalbard, an archipelago deep in the Arctic Circle known for its rugged, remote terrain of glaciers and frozen tundra, is often referred to as the land of the polar bear. But spotting one of the majestic white giants is expected to get harder next year under new regulations aimed at protecting the region from the growth in popularity of expedition cruising.

Beginning January 1, 2025, only ships carrying 200 or fewer passengers will be permitted to land—and only in select spots—within national parks and other protected areas of the Norwegian territory that are home to walruses, seals, reindeer, and more.

The new rule, among several changes enacted by the government of Norway in February, is even more strict than those for cruises in Antarctica, where ships carrying up to 500 people can make landings, albeit with no more than 100 people disembarking at a time.

It’s one of a growing list of recently adopted or proposed restrictions for the Arctic and the Antarctic that aim to regulate where visitors can go and what they can do when they get there.

Like debates about overtourism worldwide, the attempt to balance environmental concerns with booming travel demand is a tug-of-war that has been going on for years—and one that will no doubt continue to escalate in response to the steady increase in expedition cruise ships being built and deployed.

Here’s a look at the new and proposed rules for polar tourism, and the impact they might have.

New rules for cruises in Svalbard

Last year, 32 boats carrying nearly 24,000 passengers visited Svalbard, compared to 25 ships carrying just over 20,000 passengers in 2019, according to numbers provided by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO).

While larger ships will still be able to visit Svalbard’s only cruise port in Longyearbyen, the northernmost settlement in the world, it’s just the jumping-off point for sailing deeper into the wild to explore by foot and on Zodiacs and kayaks.

Expedition ships traditionally carry up to 200 passengers, and those small ships make up 70 to 80 percent of the Svalbard sailings, according to industry estimates. But as expedition cruising has grown, so has the size of some of the ships, including some of the luxury entrants into the expedition market. Seabourn and Silversea’s new expedition ships, for instance, carry between 200 and 300 passengers. Scenic’s new ships carry just over 200, but the company keeps polar sailings to 200 passengers.

An expedition cruise ship in Svalbard

Come January, only ships carrying 200 passengers or fewer will be permitted to sail in Svalbard.

Tetyana Dotsenko/Shutterstock

Besides restricting passenger counts of ships in the protected areas, the new Norwegian regulations will limit to 43 the number of protected areas where the ships can drop anchor and take their passengers to explore. They will also prohibit people and boats from getting closer than 500 feet to areas where walruses congregate, and prohibit cruise ships from breaking fast ice, or ice that is connected to the shore or seabed—a controversial practice that some employ to give passengers a closer view of polar bears or to allow passengers to walk on ice.

Exactly what impact these rules will have on cruising in the region remains to be seen. But AECO said it “will not only limit operations, but also will put a severe strain on the remaining areas open for shore-landings.”

Howard Whelan, a veteran guide with the Australian company Aurora Expeditions, which only sails ships with fewer than 150 passengers, said he, too, is concerned about the impact of funneling all the ships into limited sites rather than having them spread out and explore more widely across the archipelago. But he applauded the fast-ice rule “because that’s clearly affecting polar bear and seal habitat.”

AECO said it was disappointed the rules were enacted “despite a thorough consultation process, where a united industry has worked on providing solutions in line with the common goal of protecting the vulnerable wildlife and wilderness of Svalbard.”

Now the group said it is working with operators to help them better understand the new rules as they tweak their itineraries.

Hurtigruten, the Norwegian-based company that was a pioneer in expedition cruising, says that while its two ships that circumnavigate Svalbard have a maximum capacity of 200 passengers, it has larger ships that also sail the region.

“Our team of expedition experts await further updates from AECO, and we will work together to adapt our itineraries where necessary,” said Karin Strand, vice president of expedition development at HX, Hurtigruten’s expedition arm.

HX said it will announce new Svalbard itineraries in the weeks ahead that meet the new requirements, and that it is deepening its partnership with sister brand Hurtigruten Svalbard, the oldest and leading ground operator in the destination.

The cascading Dynjandi waterfall in Iceland surrounded by mossy rocks in the foreground

Iceland is considering regulating visits to Dynjandi waterfall.

Thomas Schnitzler/Shutterstock

Proposed regulations for Greenland and Iceland

While the new regulations may push more Arctic cruises south to Iceland and to Greenland’s remote eastern coast, authorities in those countries are also working on proposals that could restrict cruising.

Among those being considered is a tourism law that would create zoning in Greenland to define areas where tourism is restricted or banned, according to AECO.

Greenland is also looking at creating cruise-specific zones that define where cruise activities are either fully unrestricted, allowed under certain conditions, or prohibited entirely.

In Iceland, the government is considering regulations for Zodiac landings near the Dynjandi waterfall, the largest waterfall in the country’s Westfjords region and a popular attraction for tourists on land and ship. And it recently passed an accommodation tax for overnight stays, including on cruise ships.

Antarctica looks into further limits, too

One of the hottest tickets for expedition cruising is Antarctica, which reported more than 100,000 visitors last year, mostly on cruise ships. Managing that growth is expected to be a key focus of next month’s annual meeting of consultative members of the Antarctic Treaty, which last year agreed to begin work on a comprehensive tourism management plan.

Among the contentious topics discussed last year were whether to prohibit any expansion of landing sites for cruise-ship passengers and the possible banning of overnight camping and the use of helicopters and submersibles by cruise ships.

Debates for limiting tourism in Antarctica have been going on for years, but changes are much harder to adopt as there is no central government, and 56 countries are party to the treaty that governs the vast white continent.

Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
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