Arctic National Parks - Establishing National Sovereignty or Genuine Promotion of Tourism

by Anneliese Guess The Arctic is becoming the last frontier for extreme tourists in search of exotic vacation destinations. The region’s tourism industry has shown recent signs of development, as indicated by Chinese plans to develop ecotourism in Iceland as well as an influx in cruise ships visiting the Northern latitudes. In spite of signs that Arctic tourism may be picking up, it is extremely limited at this stage and challenges specific to the region will prove difficult to overcome. Constraints include: limitations to accessibility, costs, security issues, lack of infrastructure, preservation of wildlife and the Arctic ecosystem, and competition with the energy and natural resources industry.

With the creation of the Russkaya Arktika (Russian Arctic) National Park in June 2009, Russia is following in the footsteps of other Arctic Nations, including the U.S., which established the Gate to the Arctic National Park (1980) in Alaska and Canada, which established Quttinirpaaq (1988), Aulavik (1992), and Sirmilik (2001) National Parks in Nunavut. The Russian Arctic consists of 15 million hectares, including the two major archipelagos Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land. The latter is situated about 540 miles from the North Pole and is a convenient and popular stop for cruise liners. [1] Tourists to this remote region generally come to see the landscape and wildlife: Both archipelagos are home to significant populations of polar bears, walruses, and birds. Tourists can also visit the historic expedition sites of High North pioneers.

The Russian Arctic National Park aims to preserve the biodiversity and integrity of the territory, foster science and research efforts, and provide a framework for Arctic tourism. Additionally, the creation of park may serve to to bolster Russia’s arctic claims and help it to establish territorial sovereignty. Former director of the Franz Josef Land Nature Reserve, Gennady Danilov stated in a 2009 interview: "The aim of creating the park is not only and not so much to preserve nature as to ensure national security. If territory is uninhabited it may be put under international control. This is why all countries assign the status of a national park to all uninhabited territories. This is what happens on Alaska, Greenland and the Canadian islands. Nobody can claim a territory with this status." [2]

Russian officials, however, have been promoting the park as a research and tourist site, refraining from commenting on the security implications of the region. Roman Viktorovich recently took over the leadership of the Russian Arctic and is optimistic for the park’s future. He plans to build a visitor center, a museum, and additional buildings to host tourists in Arkhangelsk near park headquarters. In 2011, the first summer the park has been open, he reports “11 tours and…more than 800 tourists” (90% of them are foreign tourists). [3]

Despite Viktorovich’s optimism, Arctic tourism is only possible during two to three months of the year and most tours originate from Murmansk via nuclear-powered icebreakers, raising issue of accessibility and fear of environmental harm. Arctic Expedition cruises that bring most tourists to the North Pole are also very expensive; Danilov estimates that a two week-tour runs between $20,000 [4] and $30,000 and luxury suites can cost as must as $70,000. [5] Viktorovich estimates that a trip from Arkhangelsk costs significnatly less, at about $7,000-$8,000 and he has plans to make trips more affordable in the future. [6]

Still, the development of infrastructure is difficult in the Arctic due to long transport distances and difficult working conditions. The Russian Arctic Park is looking to tourism strategies used by Svalbard to shape their plans. Svalbard hosts more than 60,000 tourists a year, thanks to development of infrastructure and successful advertising campaigns. [7]

Furthermore, both the now-defunct BP-Rosneft deal and the recent Exxonmobil-Rosneft deal, raise questions about the territorial integrity of the national park. Both deals include territory currently belonging to the Russian Arctic. [8] It is widely speculated that the Russian government will forfeit some of the preserved land to honor the specifications of this deal, which would not only take away from the park’s area, but also potentially bring drilling operations close to the border of the park. [9]

Although the Russian Arctic experienced a successful initial summer, development of tourism in the region is riddled with problems. Only time will tell if the Russian government can effectively overcome the present obstacles and develop a sustainable and accessible High North tourism industry.

[1] Sazhenova, Anastasia. “Russia ready to boost Arctic tourism.” Barents Observer. August 29, 2011.
[2] Sazhenova, Anastasia. 
[3] Sazhenova, Anastasia. 
[4] “Gennady Danilov: the ‘Russian Arctic’ national park will not be opened in time.” RIA Novosti. April 16, 2010.
[5] “Russian Arctic National Park on Novaya Zemlya.” Tourism and Aviation. Decmber 15, 2010.
[7] Shalyov, Andrey. “Tourism in Arctic: attractive and accessible.” Barents Observer. May 27, 2011.
[8] Domnitskaya, Maria. “Russia’s Arctic plans.” The Voice of Russia. Aguust 26, 2011.
[9] Bachman, Jessica. “Russia may tweak Arctic park border for oil firms: WWF.” Reuters. February, 18. 2011.