Alexei Mironov: There should be regular flights to the Arctic for tourists
When did tourists start traveling to the Russian Arctic?
Arctic tourism in the Soviet Union began fairly early — the first cruise on the Vatslav Vorovsky steamship was in 1966. People would also hike to the Arctic. But that’s the past. We’re interested in what’s happening in Arctic tourism now.
In the post-Soviet period, from the early 1990s to 1998, nobody wanted to travel to the Arctic. In 1998 demand for Arctic tours started to grow but the economic crisis in August of that year forced our compatriots out of the Arctic again. Individual tourists tried to organize trips to the Arctic on their own in 1999–2000.
Why did interest in the Arctic start to pick up again?
At first people were more interested in satisfying their craving for foreign travel, which had been banned for generations. Foreign travel was a dream and a status symbol. Once it was allowed people went to places they had long dreamt about.
Having seen plenty of exotic countries, their thoughts began to turn to the Arctic. Many visited it when they were young and wanted to return. They were Soviet tourists, or people who had served in the army or worked in the Arctic in Soviet times.
Did Artur Chilingarov’s expedition in 2003 play a role in sparking interest?
Artur Chilingarov made the Arctic broadly popular. People had forgotten that it existed.
Many more tourists would probably go to the Arctic if it had proper facilities but it has virtually none. They should be built or transferred to the Arctic. This is why Arctic tours are fairly expensive and there is a certain threshold for who can travel there. There may be a lot of people who want to go there, but only certain people can afford it.
You’re probably someone who can afford it. When did you first travel to the Arctic and why?
It happened quite unexpectedly in 2001. I had been involved in international advertising and met a man at a tourism expo who asked me to organize tours to the North Pole on a nuclear icebreaker. I was really surprised by the offer, but I accepted. So the first time I went to the Arctic I was running a tour, not a tourist myself.
Was it difficult to start practically from scratch?
Yes, we started from scratch. It wasn’t easy but Americans had already done it. In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed various US companies started chartering Russian nuclear icebreakers for Arctic tours, albeit only for foreign tourists. When we started out, we also offered tours to foreigners because we couldn’t find enough Russians.
How many cruises to the Russian Arctic will be organized this year?
Five cruises on a nuclear icebreaker, another one to Wrangel Island (which is also part of the Arctic) and one to Chukotka. So, seven cruises in all.
Who organizes them?
American, British and New Zealand companies. Our club isn’t organizing tours on steamships or icebreakers this year. We are only working with the Barneo ice station.
So you won’t offer your traditional July trip?
There will be transportation to the Russian Arctic but charted by a different company. That said, we sell many of their tickets.
What kinds of itineraries do Russian and Western tour operators offer to tourists? What is accessible to an average Arctic tourist?
Well, you can visit the Arctic just by going to Murmansk because it is located beyond the Arctic Circle. But let’s stick to the High Arctic — the coast of the Northern Sea Route and beyond.
There are practically no land-based tours for this part of the Arctic due to the lack of infrastructure and the difficulty of flying there. The biggest problem is that many potential tourist centers are simply closed to visitors. For instance, there is no access to Naryan-Mar, Anadyr or Pevek.
These are serious limitations. The bulk of tours offered for the high-altitude Arctic are cruises. Ships take the place of infrastructure — they offer accommodations, restaurants, toilets and hot water — the simple blessings of civilization.
Svalbard Archipelago may also be considered part of the Russian Arctic because it is jointly owned. The state-owned company Arktikugol (which belongs to the Energy Ministry and is Russia’s flagship on the Norwegian archipelago) has big plans for tourism. Last year it established a tourist section and it’s already booking people up for trips. The company offers snowmobile tours and trips to Piramida (a mining settlement that closed down in 1997) or just to Svalbard.
Tourists flying to Svalbard, including Russian tourists, must use a Norwegian airport because it’s the only one open there. We have the same infrastructure problems there as in the entire Russian Arctic.
What tour operators offer the most extensive tours — Russian or Western?
Foreign tour operators don’t do much on the ground in the Arctic. Some foreign companies sell tours to what they call the Russian Arctic —Yakutia and Oimyakon, the Cold Pole. But that’s Siberia, not the Arctic, although it is indeed very cold there. Most people just assume these are Arctic regions because they are cold and snowy. These tours are sold by foreigners but run by Russian tour operators. Russian travel agencies basically don’t sell anything. The only exception is our club and probably a few other tour operators.
But foreign travel agencies don’t do anything in the Russian Arctic. Small Russian companies offer their services to foreign tour operators because they are unable to compete on the global market and there is no demand for their services in Russia due to high prices and conditions that aren’t very comfortable.
Is it cheaper to travel to the Russian Arctic from Russia or abroad?
The costs are about the same. In fact, they are even higher abroad, especially because prices are quoted in local currency, which is expensive for us. There is no way you can buy a cheaper cruise, say, to Wrangel Island abroad. Cruise prices are the same everywhere. These are global prices.
What kinds of people travel to the Russian Arctic: Russians, foreigners, billionaires, romantics? How old are the youngest and the oldest tourists?
In the early 2000s, 98–99 percent of all tourists were foreigners but fortunately the ratio has changed. Many more Russians go on Arctic tours now. We always have Russian tourists.
What is the ratio now? What percent of Russians will an average tourist group have?
Are Arctic tourists wealthy?
As we discussed, these tours are fairly pricy. Only people with money can afford them, naturally.
There are two types of Arctic tours. (This is my theory, my personal view). The first is status tours to the Arctic, for example, to the North Pole. They are bought by people who can afford to drop everything and go to the end of the world. Later they will mention in passing to their friends and colleagues: “Oh, by the way, I took a quick trip to the North Pole recently.” The most expensive Arctic tours are bought by people who are not really interested in the Arctic. They don’t know anything about it. They just visit the North Pole to say they’ve been there. They are fairly rich even by European standards.
That’s the first type. What about the second?
There are tours to the Arctic coast and islands, for instance along the Northern Sea Route, to Franz Joseph Land, Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya or Greenland.
I don’t think these tours have anything to do with status. Most people would actually feel sorry for someone who said, “I went to Svalbard again this summer.” These tours are for people who love the Arctic for different reasons.
I am talking about tourists, not scientists. They pay to go to the Arctic of their own free will. People in the West and now increasingly in Russia, too, want to be defined by more than just their job — many have an intellectual hobby.
Such tours are booked by bird watchers, for example. They are immersed in the topic and quite often know more about it than the scientists that are hired to give lectures on board for them. Some love flowers or mosses, while others are crazy about geology or wildlife photography. I met many Russians who are interested in the history of Arctic exploration.
These people are middle-aged, 35 and up. They are middle class. Most still remember the history of Soviet Arctic exploration. They have jobs and can afford an Arctic tour for $5,000—$7,000. Sailboat tours to Svalbard cost $3,500.
How old are the youngest and the oldest Arctic tourists?
Children traveling with parents are, of course, the youngest. We’ve had kids as young as one and a half or two, but what will they remember?
The most senior tourist we had was a 101 year-old lady. We took her to the North Pole on an icebreaker.
Middle-aged people travel to the Arctic most often. Russians are always on the younger side, 35–50 on average, whereas foreigners are 55 or older.
Tens of thousands of people visit Svalbard during the tourist season as compared to less than a thousand for the Russian Arctic? Why is that?
No visa is required for Svalbard, and reliable foreign airlines make regular flights to it. Foreign tourists require a visa and usually a special permit on top of that to go to the Russian Arctic.
As for the crazy number of people visiting Svalbard, they consist of foreigners rather than Norwegians, who amount to about 30 percent of this flow, which is a lot but still less than half.
What are the most popular tourist destinations in the Russian Arctic?
Popular destinations are limited to what is accessible: the North Pole, Svalbard, Franz-Joseph Land and Wrangel Island.
The North Pole is the most popular among Russian tourists judging by the numbers, followed by Wrangel Island, Svalbard and Franz Joseph Land (two cruises per year).
What about tourist facilities in the Russian Arctic?
A few hotels have been upgraded in the Russian part of Svalbard and a restaurant has opened.
Franz Joseph Land has nothing but a small research station where two people live. It’s an uninhabited archipelago. There are no tourist facilities on Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, New Siberian Islands or Wrangel Island.
So, when you organize tours you have to bring all the necessities with you?
And then you have to take back all the garbage created by the tourists?
We often even take back garbage that was on the coast before we arrived. Foreigners and recently also Russians eagerly following our request: if you see a plastic bottle, bring it to your ship and we will recycle it at the nearest port.
How many Russian vessels operate in the Russian Arctic today?
The icebreaker Fifty Years of Victory goes to the North Pole. It gets a temporary tourism permit for the duration of the cruise season and operates as a passenger vessel.
New Zealand’s Heritage Expeditions use the Spirit of Enderby steamship. This is the brand name, but in reality it’s a Russian research vessel, the Professor Khromov, sailing under a Russian flag.
So, there are just two vessels?
Yes, that’s it.
What other modes of transportation are available to tourists?
There are flights to Svalbard. There are no airfields in the Russian Arctic. There is Barneo airfield but it is covered with ice. Only a small plane can land on it, but a small plane will not make it to Barneo from continental Russia. So, all flights to Barneo go through Longyearbyen. Once the large aircraft lands in Longyearbyen passengers board a small AN-74 plane and fly to the ice station (Svalbard is in the Arctic). Its special design allows the tiny AN-74 to land on an ice airfield.
There are also helicopter tours, usually to the North Pole. They are offered to tourists once a year in April from the Barneo ice station that the expedition center of the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) builds in the Arctic every year. Such tours are exclusively offered by our travel club.
What do you have planned with RGS this year?
The center builds an ice camp and brings aircraft to Barneo while we organize tours and sell them on the world market.
Who are your competitors on the tourism market?
Foreigners are our toughest competitors on the world market, including the Russian Arctic. They are trendsetters both in services and routes.
Foreign tour operators receive permits to operate in the Russian Arctic and organize expensive tours. Various foreign companies arrange about 80 cruises to Svalbard. We have seven cruises planned in Russia but they are also arranged by foreign companies.
Will tourism be part of the future of the Russian Arctic? What measures can promote tourism in the Russian Arctic?
No doubt, tourism has prospects in the Russian Arctic, but I think in the near future the number of Russian tourists who can afford an Arctic tour will drop dramatically. The stricter entry rules we are seeing are also reducing the tourist flow.
To promote Arctic tourism it is necessary, first of all, to simplify and unify the process of getting permits to visit the Arctic.
It would also be great to receive government support to help popularize the treasures of the Russian Arctic. Most Arctic countries are providing such assistance by subsidizing participation in major international expos and printing brochures with contact info for the best Arctic tour operators. Last but not least, the Russian Arctic needs airfields and regular flights to increase the number of tourists.