The irony of “last chance” travel in the age of climate change

Seeing iconic landscapes before they fade away may be accelerating their demise. Can we square the circle on making these trips sustainable?

  • Jan 17, 2024
  • 2,192 words
  • 9 minutes
Leif Erickson, Erik the Red’s son, overlooks this expedition cruise, just outside Qassiarsuk, Greenland.
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“Good morning, everyone. Good morning.” It’s 5:30 a.m., and a speaker-announcement jolts me awake from a dead sleep. “We have about 20 or so humpback whales outside our ship.”

I launch myself out of bed, fumbling for my camera before darting out of my cabin and up to a viewing deck. There they are, arching their knobby dorsal fins gracefully above the water and casting their flukes into the crisp morning air before taking a shallow dive. Shortly after, the sunrise announces itself, a gradient of orange and pink pastels painting the mountains along the shore. Then, icebergs appear out of the mist.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” I think. “I can’t believe I’m in Greenland.”

I’m on a 12-day expedition cruise aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Endurance, a small ship outfitted with landing craft. Our journey will take us along the thin strip of the “green” in Greenland on its southwest coast — from the post-glacial landscape in Kangerlussuaq in the Arctic Circle, to hiking and kayaking the Neria Fjord, to the tidewater glaciers of Ikerasassuaq — all the way to Iceland. Expedition cruises are the choice of adventurous, nature-loving and sustainability minded passengers who want to visit remote places, while also having a luxury experience. The locations of these expeditions are often threatened by climate change, giving travellers a chance to see endangered landscapes or species, possibly before they disappear.

But burning fossil fuels to visit threatened environments definitely feels ironic. As a travel writer, I’m constantly wrestling with questions such as: Should we be travelling to endangered landscapes at all? Can it even be done sustainably? What is at stake if we don’t travel?

As the saying goes: “Tourism is like a fire. You can either cook your food with it, or burn your house down.”

Humpback whale flukes off Greenland, not far from Paamiut.
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Passing an iceberg near Paamiut, Greenland, just after sunrise after watching whales.
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Why someone would want to spend good money to visit a place like Greenland is not in question. Greenland is not just the home of Fezzik from The Princess Bride; it’s a place of rich cultural history and captivating landscapes. Take Ikerasassuaq, or Prince Christian Sound, a southern waterway that cuts through mainland Greenland, showcasing frosted, turquoise glacial flows that roll between slopes of chocolate-brown, rocky terrain.

Greenland is also the emerging poster-child of the impact of climate change. The lion’s share of the island is within the Arctic Circle, which is warming four times faster than anywhere else on Earth. Roughly 80 per cent of Greenland is ice sheet. And it’s experiencing record melting, huge ice melt events, and a negative ice sheet “mass balance” for the 27th year in a row. The desire to witness these endangered landscapes like this one is sometimes labelled “last-chance tourism.”

If I’m being honest, at least part of my motivation to go to these places is to see them now as they are now — before they’re irrevocably changed… or gone. I’m not alone in this.

“I come from a science family,” says photographer and guest Kurt Hillig, smiling at me through a bushy white beard. “I had my explosions in the same lab that my mother had her explosions in.” Hillig was once a postdoc and research scientist in the chemistry lab at the University of Michigan.

Hillig takes photos of everything from flowers to glaciers along the way. Record keeping. “This is here now and I’m here now,” he says. “I’m trying to capture it before it disappears, so I can…share it with other people…show them, you know, this is what the world could have been, if we hadn’t…been so driven by profit instead of pleasure.”

Terminal moraine in Ikerasassuaq (Prince Christian Sound), Greenland.
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Working with National Geographic, Lindblad hosts scientists, and their research, making it possible for them to undertake costly journeys that might otherwise be outside their budgets. The data they gather can shed light on how we can better protect these unique places.

Branwen Williams, professor of environmental biology at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., presents images from a microscope on the big screens of the Science Hub, an expedition program where visiting scientists present their research and interact with guests. Her eyes light up when I ask her about her work after the presentation.

“The specimen…that I’m looking at right now is a species of crustose coralline algae,” says Williams, who has trained Lindblad divers to collect her samples during cruises. “These are actually a red algae that grows a hard skeleton, and it lays down the skeleton through time, forming these layers.” She compares these calcified layers to tree rings. “They can live for hundreds of years archiving environmental variability.” That data, archived in algae, is a way to trace changes over long periods of time where we have no records.

Williams will bring these samples back to the Kravis Department of Integrated Sciences at Claremont for extensive examination of their layered structure. She’s partnered with glaciologist Meghana Ranganathan, who is also on board. Ranganathan is a NOAA postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech and incoming assistant professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago.

“You take puzzle pieces from all of these different pieces of evidence that you can find,” says Ranganathan, whose glacier research has taken her as far afield as Antarctica. “We have satellite data, we have the algae that Branwen was looking at…we’re really just trying to piece together a coherent picture from any evidence that we can get.”

As glaciers (fresh water) flow, then crack, becoming icebergs, they melt in the sea water, reducing its salinity. This, along with rising temperatures, impacts the chemistry of algae. So, the data the algae hold can tell Williams and Ranganathan about the history of Greenland’s ice sheets and potentially project what we could expect to see if they keep melting the way they are.

Heading to Qaqortoq on Zodiac.
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So, for the scientists aboard them, there is more to an expedition cruise than acting as death doulas for the Arctic. Ranganathan insists that while there are regions that are going to change dramatically, we are not yet at the tipping point.

Passengers also learn from local Inuit — known collectively as Kalaallit — about their culture. For millennia, they have made the lands now called Alaska, Canada, and Greenland their home. Approximately 88 per cent of Greenlanders are Inuit.

Stopping along the way at small settlements, like Qassiarsuk that sit next to the first Viking settlement at Brattahlíð, or towns like Qaqortoq, where blue, red, and green houses dot the hillsides like pixels, we learn about Kalaallit, their efforts to reclaim a culture that the Danish tried to eradicate through family separation and birth control, and how they still maintain traditional ways of harvesting.

This brings me back to sustainability. When we say “sustainable,” we are generally discussing our carbon footprint and our overall impact on an environment or the people who live as part of it — now, and in the future. Can we continue to travel this island and still leave this place for another generation of those who are tied to the land so deeply? 

Glacial flow at Ikerasassuaq (Prince Christian Sound), Greenland.
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A couple of menacing storm systems that spun off from a hurricane to the south are merging and heading our way. Waves collide with violence under a glowering sky. As we toss and pitch in the Denmark Strait to swells and waves reaching upward of seven to 12 metres, I not only discover that I don’t get seasick; I’m struck by the irony of being knocked around by storms that are likely amplified by climate change. The down time allows me to think about the question of our impact, a storm of our own making.  

Greenland’s approach to climate change is, perhaps, surprising. On one hand, it’s definitely seen as a “global disaster” and they are sticking to the Paris Agreement, banning licensing for drilling for oil and gas. But they also are taking a pragmatic approach; climate change is an opportunity for economic growth through mining, fishing, agriculture, and, of course, tourism.

Tourism does, so to speak, “cook a meal.”

During the pandemic, lost tourism meant lost benefits. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates tourism lost US$4.5 trillion (Cdn$5.6 trillion) globally and 62 million jobs during COVID. Women were disproportionately impacted: in tourism, twice-as-many employers are women, compared to other sectors, and more than half of those employed in the industry are women. Fewer dollars also went to conservation globally, which meant fewer rangers and increased poaching in tourism destinations like Costa Rica.

Expedition cruise guests explore Erik the Red’s first settlement in Brattahlíð, Greenland.
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Expedition cruises tend to have a lower passenger capacity than conventional cruises.
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So, what kind of tourism cooks sustainably? Greenland tourism points to a 2019 case study from Svalbard as their model for providing more support to smaller expedition ships. Expedition cruises generate a stronger economic contribution, with expedition guests spending 5.2 times more than conventional cruise guests, while maintaining a lower environmental impact than conventional cruises. Expedition ships also have passenger capacities that are usually under 500. (Lindblad’s Endurance has only 138 passengers.)

A modest 103,000 visitors came to Greenland by plane and ship in 2022. With a population under 57,000 and 150 kilometres of road in the entire country and no highway systems, travel between towns is by boat, helicopter, or prop planes, meaning cruise ships can enable tourism where infrastructure and overnight stays are limited.

I like these facts, but as a journalist who covers tourism, I’m aware of my potential selection bias. Tourism, though, is woven into the fabric of the world’s economic systems. As I see it, if you’re going to travel, why not do it as responsibly as possible?

Having fewer feet on the ground means a lower environmental impact, and since most expedition ships are members of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), they are held to extensive environmental and operational guidelines, Arctic vegetation guidelines, and wildlife guidelines. For biosecurity, for example, guests’ boots must be decontaminated before they touch sensitive lands.

A few expedition cruises, like Lindblad, are plastic-free. Many are moving away from buffets to fight food waste — emissions associated with food waste make up eight to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations environment programme. Some offer vegan options, since greenhouse gases from animal-based foods are twice that of plant-based foods. Many are moving to cleaner — though not clean — low-sulfur fuel options. Some expedition cruises offset their footprint and have newer ships with designs that reduce drag and increases fuel-efficiency or that use battery-hybrid technology.

Cruise guests ride on a Zodiac as part of an expedition in Greenland.
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It is also impossible to deny that tourism can be that precarious fire.

Tourism constitutes 8 to 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to various studies cited by the World Travel and Tourism Council, with tourism-based transportation being 49 per cent of that number, and cruises being roughly 0.6 per cent. These numbers are not insignificant, especially when greenhouse gases are expected to reach 58.9 billion tonnes globally in 2024. And with sales for expedition cruises up 78 per cent from 2022, it could mean adding more visits in the future to accommodate a growing demand, meaning a larger carbon footprint and overall impact.

So, how to work through this recipe for existential despair?

According to the World Emissions Clock, the average Canadian’s greenhouse gases are expected to be roughly 22.7 tonnes in 2024 and 16.7 tonnes for Americans — more or less, depending on what you do at home to minimize your impact and how much you travel. But zoom out to that global 58.9 billion tonnes and there is a perspective change. Those 22.7 and 16.7 tonnes amount to 0.000000038% and 0.000000028% respectively of global greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, as individuals contribute a mere fraction of global impact, and the majority of those numbers are tied to energy systems over which we have very little control.

This brings me back to the unpredictability of fire. No one is arguing that we should stop using fire. It has its benefits. There is also no way for an expedition cruise to leave a place as if it was never there. There will be irony. And while I alone can’t change an unjust global system built on decades of political corruption, I can decide where my tourism dollars can be most beneficial, like helping local economies, and more sustainable, like having a reduced, if not perfect, environmental impact. I can help to cook a meal.

We finally reach dry land in Iceland.

There’s a collective relief at reaching terra firma and leaving behind that tortured sea. Nature seems to agree. That day, we see two double rainbows off the stern and, later, northern lights dance eerily in a midnight sky.

It’s perfect reminder that there are still wonderful things to see and protect in this world. Greenland is one of them.


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