Tourism – threat or benefit to conservation?

Tourism is the world’s largest and fastest-growing industry. The Arctic is an increasingly popular destination, with few limits to its growth. In 2000, more than 1.5 million tourists visited the Arctic, as defined by CAFF. If one includes the entire state of Alaska, the figure is twice as high, exceeding the number of Arctic residents. More than a million tourists crowd into the Arctic Fennoscandia, making use of the Arctic’s densest infrastructure of roads, other transport facilities, and buildings. Not only does infrastructure attract tourists, tourism is itself a major cause of wilderness fragmentation, particularly as roads and other permanent structures are built for cars and their passengers. Tourism poses several other threats. Unsustainable levels of hunting and fishing, particularly illegal poaching, are especially worrisome in Russia. Vehicle and foot traffic can damage fragile tundra soils and vegetation. The Icelandic tourism industry, for example, promotes off-road driving in its efforts to increase tourism. Garbage, waste, and pollution are significant problems for many tourism operations, especially as decomposition is slow and waste remains visible atop the permafrost in many Arctic areas. Simply the sheer number of people can disturb both wildlife and local communities.

But there is another side to tourism, one that can be beneficial for conservation. Most tourists visit the Arctic to see its natural wonders in pristine condition. In principle, this means that tour operators have a strong interest in protecting the environment. In Svalbard, tour companies have joined with conservation organizations to push for environmental protection. They have prevented construction of a road and spurred the Norwegian government to try to make Svalbard one of the best-managed wilderness areas in the world. Tourists can be effective proponents of conservation as well, spreading awareness of Arctic environmental issues when they return home. The economic benefits of tourism can provide an alternative to potentially more damaging sources of income such as mining, providing jobs to communities without harming their environment.

With both the positive and negative potential of Arctic tourism in mind, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and its partners in the tourism industry have developed guidelines and incentives for reducing negative impacts on and increasing the benefits for the Arctic environment. The effort is based on ten principles:

  1. Make tourism and conservation compatible.
  2. Support the preservation of wilderness and biodiversity.
  3. Use natural resources in a sustainable way.
  4. Minimize consumption, waste, and pollution.
  5. Respect local cultures.
  6. Respect historic and scientific sites.
  7. Communities should benefit from tourism.
  8. Trained staff are the key to responsible tourism.
  9. Make your trip an opportunity to learn about the Arctic.
  10. Follow safety rules.

This approach is finding increasing support among Arctic governments, regions, communities, and private business. With a concerted effort, Arctic tourism can be a long-term asset for conservation.

Peter Prokosch, WWF International Arctic Programme, Oslo, Norway. From the CAFF publication, Arctic Flora and Fauna, www.caff.is