How will Arctic tourism look without snow?

The eyes of the world are turning northward, and Arctic tourism has grown significantly. Postdoctoral researcher Alix Varnajot aims to frame what Arctic tourism means and how climate change is affecting our visions of tourism in the Arctic. Faced by environmental changes, Arctic destinations need adaptation strategies to remain relevant.

The edges of the map

As a kid, Alix Varnajot loved geography. The French student’s eyes were always drawn to the edges of the map or the small islands no one else paid attention to.

“How people picture the Arctic has changed in the last ten years or so. It’s getting more media coverage, and destinations are promoting themselves actively. Also, the rise of social media has played a key role in promoting Arctic destinations, bringing new visitors to the region,” Varnajot says.

Varnajot points out that tourism is connected to many other industries and areas of life. He mentions mining, reindeer husbandry and local cultures as examples in Lapland, which is the focus of most of his studies.

“You can look at tourism from so many angles: economic, geographic, environmental and so on. At first, tourism seems easy to understand, but when you start looking deeper, you see how intricate it is. The Arctic is changing fast, and the ideas of tourism need to be rethought. Combining tourism and the Arctic creates a playground for conceptual thinking. That’s what I like to do,” he says.

Last chance to see polar bears?

Polar bear tourists in Svalbard. Photo: Adobe Stock

When younger, Varnajot didn’t see himself becoming a scientist, but following his passion for geography led naturally to the career path of an academic geographer. His first encounter with the Arctic region was during his Erasmus exchange studies in Norway in 2012. He has spent the last few years in Finland and is working in the Tourism Geographies and Sustainable Mobilities research group within the Geography Research Unit at the University of Oulu.

Varnajot’s work mainly consists of developing concepts of Arctic tourism and climate change adaptation, which suits the enthusiastic writer well. Funding from the Arctic Interactions initiative has given him the opportunity to focus on the concepts he wants to – the things that have been on his mind for years.

One of those concepts is “last chance tourism”. This refers to tourists wanting to see and engage with landscapes or species before they are gone for good. The Great Barrier Reef or snowy mountains in the Alps could be examples of last chance tourism destinations.

“I don’t think you’d ever see a place promoting itself with a slogan like: ‘Come and see polar bears before they disappear’. The concept is, however, more visible in the media and in the motivations of tourists,” Varnajot explains.

He sees both opportunities and risks in tourist locations relying on last chance tourism. On the one hand, economic benefits are in stock for places like Svalbard, which has become a popular and accessible destination for experiencing the high Arctic and polar bears. On the other hand, if a location depends too heavily on last chance tourism, it may perish when the attractions people come to see and experience are no longer there.

Postdoctoral researcher Alix Varnajot is applying the concept of “dark tourism” to the Arctic in the scenario that the snow is lost for good. Photo: Primi Putri.

Dark tourism and mourning the loss of snow and ice

Now that climate change is rapidly affecting the Arctic, the next logical step for Varnajot is to think about the time when the snow and ice no longer exist. The geographer is applying the concept of “dark tourism” to the Arctic in the scenario that the snow is lost for good.

Dark tourism in general means visiting places that have been the site of human tragedy. Museums at concentration camps and the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center are good examples. Varnajot offers another, slightly different one:

“In the summer of 2019 in Iceland, two anthropologists held a funeral for a glacier that had disappeared. It was said to be the first funeral for a glacier. In this kind of dark tourism, people will mourn glaciers and go to places where they used to be. It’s easy to draw a connection to places where people have died. That’s how I approach the idea of tourism and climate change,” he explains.

In Varnajot’s mind, this personification of glaciers could be utilised in both last chance and dark tourism. Seeing human characteristics in non-living objects is not a new phenomenon either.

“Personification is something that people living close to glaciers have been doing for a long time, giving them names and genders for example. It might be beneficial in tourism to do that even after the ‘death’ of a glacier. People may be affected by it and feel more empathy,” he suggests.

Indeed, there have been several other glacier funerals in different countries, for example in the French Pyrenees. According to Varnajot, it suggests that people are becoming more and more aware of the climate crisis and feel emotional pain when the environment is changing.

From behind the desk to the North Pole

Arctic tourist cruise from Svalbard to the geographic North Pole. Photo: Adobe Stock

Despite Varnajot doing most of his work in his office, some things can’t be studied from behind a desk. An exciting opportunity to study citizen science, which involves gathering data by people outside of academia, has opened on a cruise ship that sails from Svalbard to the geographic North Pole. The tourists and scientists onboard have the opportunity to collect data on environmental change. Varnajot and his colleague Élise Lépy will get to see first-hand what the tourists’ motivations are for taking the expensive trip.

“The purpose of our research there is to find out how citizen science works on those ships by observing, interviewing and conducting surveys with passengers and the onboard scientific personnel. We want to see how tourism can become a meaningful tool for scientific research in the high Arctic,” Varnajot summarises.

For the geographer, taking the trip poses some ethical questions:

“If I go as a researcher, it doesn’t mean I necessarily support that kind of tourism. Generally, I think we need more nuances in these discussions. Things are rarely completely wrong or completely right. Still, we as a society need to track and monitor what the companies going to the Poles are doing so they keep improving themselves,” he ponders.

Destinations need to adapt

Regarding the future of Arctic tourism, Varnajot feels there are a lot of ifs involved. It is also a question of how to define Arctic tourism itself. Most tourists visiting the Arctic want to experience the winter wonderland and take a reindeer sleigh ride, for example. If Arctic tourism is only summed up as this, it might develop towards dark tourism.

Varnajot speaks about how Lapland is a good example of how climate change is affecting tourism and how a destination can adapt. According to the researcher, current adaptation strategies, such as using artificial snow, are not sustainable in the long term. In fact, he argues, artificial snow is not an adaptation strategy at all:

“On the contrary, it only maintains the dependence of Arctic tourism on the disappearing cryosphere and doesn’t solve anything.”

The future of Arctic tourism also depends on how the Arctic is promoted by the destinations themselves and the media. Snow and ice are the main attractions, because that’s what tourists expect Arctic destinations to offer.

“If we consider Arctic tourism to be more than snow and ice and take into account other seasons, cultural activities and local cultures, then Arctic tourism may not die. There’s a lot of potential there even without snow,” Varnajot argues.

Dark tourism might still be one possibility. As grim as it sounds, like the memorials of human tragedies, places of environmental degradation might offer a chance to educate visitors.

“There are several sites for education that show visitors what has happened and what they can learn from it. For example, the Unzen Volcano in Japan erupted several times in the 1990s, killing dozens of people. There is now a tourist centre there that works both as a memorial and a place for educative experiences on how volcanoes work. I can imagine something similar in the Arctic, explaining how glaciers, climate change or reindeer husbandry work,” Varnajot says.

Either way, Arctic destinations need to rethink their adaptation strategies in a changing world. That’s what Varnajot hopes to offer with his research: tools to navigate the changes and build resilience.

Text: Aino Soutsalmi

Alix Varnajot

Post-doctoral researcher, geography

Current residence: Oulu

Best thing about my work: Learning new things every day and meeting inspiring people both inside and outside of academia.

Recommends tourism studies to: Curious people who are not afraid to read and write a lot and are passionate about their study subject.

Hobbies: Cycling, reading, poetry.

Research profile: