In a move that can only be described as climate change disaster tourism of the first order, cruise line Crystal Cruises announced Tuesday that they intend to ply the Northwest Passage from Anchorage, Alaska to New York city with the 68,000 ton, 820-foot Crystal Serenity cruise ship. Fares start at $21,855 per person for double-occupancy rooms and are already reported as sold out and with a waiting list of 400. Penthouse suites cost more than $120,000 per occupant.
Stretching well into the Arctic Circle, the Northwest Passage is northern sea route between the the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Sought for centuries as a potential trade route between Europe and the East, the route was first navigated in 1903-1906 by explorer Roald Amundsen.
The Canadian Coast Guard will monitor the cruise ship daily during her voyage, though it is unclear what they would be able to do to assist in an large-scale emergency given the remote route. Canadian authorities have committed to enacting their “Environmental Response Program” if ‘pollution occurs’ in the ecologically sensitive region, though again the timeliness, scale and efficacy of such a program is again unclear.
The Crystal Serenity’s waste management procedures have not been made public at this time, nor how the ship will handle the 2 million galleons of human sewage and grey water their passengers are expected to produce over the course of the four-and-a-half week voyage. There’s much reason to be skeptical – in a 2013 cruise line “report card” issued by the Friends of the Earth, Crystal Cruises came in last out of a list of 16 major lines, earning an F in both sewage treatment and air pollution reduction. Further, there are no existing facilities on route designed to handle the influx of waste.
Climate change has only recently made the dangerous route navigable. In 2007, the European Space Agency recorded a record loss of ice in their satellite measurements, rendering the passage “fully navigable” for the first time. This pronouncement was followed by commercial shipping beginning 2008 and comes amidst increasing competition for newly-accessible hydrocarbon and mineral resources in the Arctic.
All early indications are that the sold-out cruise will be a financial success, barring any accidents or other misfortune at sea. Other major cruise lines are no doubt watching the voyage closely; and we may soon see a scramble of other companies as they take advantage of the increasingly ice-free waters. The Northwest Passage is now open for business.