The reality of arctic tourism, as explained by the youngest explorer to the North Pole

Mikaela spoke with Tessum Weber, an accomplished polar explorer about life in the arctic and his family’s business Arctic Weber, the leading arctic tourism operator. As arctic travel gains popularity so too does its controversy, the most prevailing being its carbon inefficiency and sky high price tag. With blunt honesty and a touch of humor, Tessum addresses these criticisms, and even reveals how the expensive nature of polar travel is the arctic’s last defense mechanism to protect its environment.

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Weber Arctic: a polar legacy

For Tessum Weber, polar exploration was in his blood. His grandfather came to Canada as a Swiss mountain climber and began exploring the Arctic. He made the first ascent of Mount Asgard and was flying planes to the North Pole to map the ocean floor; as Tessum puts it, “he did some stuff that was really decades and decades ahead of his time.”

His parents are no less impressive. Richard Weber, Tessum’s father, is one of the most accomplished polar explorers in history. Among many accomplishments, in 1995 he (along with Misha Malakhov) completed the first unsupported expedition to the North Pole. Josee Auclair, Richard’s wife, led some of the first all women expeditions to the North and South Poles.

It was natural that their children would grow up in the arctic. Tessum recalls “summers spent pulling out big arctic char and sneaking up on polar bears, checking out walrus and kayaking with belugas.” As he puts it, “it was a fantastic way to grow up.”

Tessum has made a polar name for himself as well: in 2010 he became the youngest person in modern history to trek to the North Pole.

Today the family owns Weber Arctic, a premier arctic tourism company based out of Nunavut. Their trips allow people to photograph polar bears and follow the caribou migration; guests too can kayak with belugas and even Heli-ski on Baffin Island.

But while arctic tourism has allowed travelers to experience this unique environment like never before, it has also opened itself up to critics.

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Carbon inefficiency in a melting pole

Across the globe, the effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced. In the arctic, they are staggering. When Weber Arctic started in the high arctic, Tessum explains, “the summer was only about six weeks, and we could reliably operate for five weeks in a season. Now, we’re operating seven or eight weeks a year, simply because the summer is warmer and longer.”

He continues: “We’re seeing wildlife patterns changing. We’re seeing ice that is visibly thinner in the Northwest Passage. The permafrost is definitely receding. And it’s happening very, very quickly.”

What does this mean for arctic tourism, an industry that requires frequent flights over long distances to access?

Tessum is honest in his response: “Arctic travel is not carbon efficient. You’re traveling very great distances in aircraft, so bluntly put, there’s a lot of carbon involved.” However, this is true for just about all tourism. Presently, society doesn’t have the technology to transport people by any means but carbon. So this criticism is a little misplaced, especially considering that Weber Arctic has an extremely small carbon footprint when flights are neglected.

“We do what we can. We put wind and solar at Arctic Haven [one of the company’s arctic lodges]. All our grey water is purified on site and fully contained and treated. All our garbage is sent down south to be recycled, we use very specialized composting toilets and have a lagoon system that treats all human waste to make sure nothing contaminates the site.”

For Tessum and Weber Arctic, these measures have nothing to do with publicity or avoiding criticism: “being in a fragile environment, you have a huge responsibility to do no damage and keep it as pristine as possible.”

While green energy and proper waste management definitely help, what is keeping the arctic in its pristine form is in fact arctic travel’s second criticism: it’s wildly expensive.

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The Arctic’s greatest relief: its sky high price tag

The hard truth about visiting the arctic is that it’s going to be expensive, and Tessum doesn’t sugar coat it: “travel in the arctic becomes very expensive, very quickly.”

For context, a 7-day trip at their Arctic Haven lodge is nearly $9,000CAD, plus the return flights to Yellowknife NWT. For many, it’s hard to justify such a trip, especially as the prices for trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights decline.

The benefit however, is that the area receives very few tourists each year, and fewer tourists means less strain on the environment.  To illustrate its remoteness, consider that  Banff, Canada’s most visited national park, has over 4 million visitors each year. Nunavut’s three parks combined received only 305 people in 2017.

Does this mean the arctic is a destined to be an experience for only the wealthy and well-off? Not exactly.

How might a budget traveler visit the arctic? To this, Tessum responds: “to be blunt, save your pennies. And I think if you’re going to go, do it properly. You can’t do it for one or two days. You have to do a whole trip.”

“We’re definitely seeing a generation of traveler that’s spending more of their annual income on travel, and we’re seeing people who are saving for five, six, even seven years to travel to the arctic, simply because they want to experience these environments.”

To those willing to save, they will be rewarded with an experience unlike anything else. “The arctic is, in my opinion, one of the last truly unspoiled places on earth. Nowhere else can you find wildlife like that, nowhere can you find archaeological and historical sites like that, truly untouched [by civilization].”

“They are sights that will remain with you for a lifetime.”

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