Balancing the needs of Arctic tourism

Profiles of Norwegian science

Arctic tourism - puffin

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Seeing puffins in the wild is a draw for some Arctic tourists. How to balance that with those tourists who wish to eat them is a question for researchers.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Hurtigruten: A shipping lifeline for Norwegian coastal communities and today a popular tourist cruise between Kirkenes and Bergen. It is also a subject of science in Norway, especially north of the Arctic Circle.
In April, we gathered a group of 16 scientists and practitioners for a workshop exploring the uniqueness of tourism among Norway’s northern lands. The University of the Arctic, Nordregio, and the Danish government supported this work.

Meeting in Tromsø, we boarded Hurtigruten north until Honningsvåg. Disembarking, we discussed what we had seen and considered who travels along the route, their expectations, their needs, and their experiences.

Over the next two days around Magerøya, we met several local tourism operators, for hiking, ice fishing, a bird safari, the museum, and producers of local products. We then boarded the ship to head back to Tromsø.

Once again in the “Paris of the North”—the city’s own branding—the Centre for Sámi Studies at the University of Tromsø and the Polar Research and Policy Initiative hosted us for a public panel on sustainable tourism in the Arctic. Speakers from academia, the private sector, and government summarized many of the lessons we had learned and proposed ways forward.

Especially challenging is reconciling varying perspectives. Different interests seek different opportunities and results. Not everyone agrees on the meaning of “sustainability.”

For some in northern Norway, income might define sustainability. If fossil-fuel extraction brings jobs, then it is part of life and livelihood. Others oppose the fossil-fuel industry as being inherently unsustainable.

Arguments rage over how exploring and extracting fossil fuels affects fish, wildlife, and tourists.
Meanwhile, two crab species have invaded Norwegian seas. They eat through the ocean, hugely affecting nature. Conversely, they are good eating for people. A tourism industry has sprung up for harvesting and eating the crabs, even shipping them live to eastern Asia. Local jobs and innovation become supported. Does an invasive-species industry represent sustainability?

Contentious debates emerge about the balance between viewing and harvesting animals. Puffins, seals, and whales draw in tourists seeking wildlife and photos. What about tourists who wish to eat them?

Where hikes to gorgeous scenic views are unsuitable for many with mobility constraints, should landscaping make the trails easier and safer? How much warning about and contingency for Arctic weather should be provided to tourists? Should tourists themselves take almost full responsibility for understanding the environment and terrain?

For visitors seeking culture as well as nature, exploitation could yield troubles. Involving Sámi in the northern Norway tour—reindeer herding and beyond—enriches traveling. It is not easy to encapsulate the depth of indigenous heritage and presence in a few hours of lectures or sightseeing. Yet its absence would be unacceptable, while its inclusion must be respectful and on Sámi terms. Striking a similar balance with non-indigenous northern cultures is not simple.

Brainstorming helped us to work through the options available. One-person firms can pursue corporate responsibility commitments as much as multinationals. Handmade crafts and unique recipes can fuse local and far away cultural components.

A higher number of tourists might not be desired if trails end up over-trampled or the wildlife overly disturbed. Creative tourist experiences can appeal to armchair voyeurs who are less inclined to travel, preferring to enjoy a location remotely.

None of these topics is exclusively Arctic. They must nevertheless be studied and applied within the context of northern Norway’s unique features.

From our travel and our work, we gained exchange of ideas, information, and images. We learned so much from the local knowledge and wisdom of the people we met. In return, we hope we were able to serve international expertise for advice while putting forward new pathways for thriving in tourism without ruining the reasons tourists come.

All this fascinating, exciting material and guidance both ways contribute to science, which can and should address the interaction of tourism, sustainability, and the Arctic in Norway. The aim is to help those traveling and those attending to the travelers.

We further hope that this work provides engaging ways forward for tourism businesses, for governments and investors supporting them, for the non-profit sector with its own goals, and for the tourists—especially for bringing everyone together. Ultimately, we need a balance. Achieving this balance must involve the residents who are most affected by people traveling to encounter the wonders which are part of daily Arctic life.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.