The Battle at the Top of the World

With ice in the Arctic melting, Crystal Cruises jumped to show passengers incredible vistas. But danger might be lurking below the surface.

A centuries-old dream has come true. The Northwest Passage, an Arctic sea route north of Canada connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, is finally navigable. Once icy year-round, the Passage now melts enough during the summer to allow ships through.

Thanks, climate change.

Seriously, that’s what some businesses are saying. This past summer, Crystal Cruises, a luxury travel company, sent the largest cruise ship to date through the Northwest Passage.[1] Starting in Alaska and ending up in New York City, the Serenity carried 1,700 passengers and crew members through stunning ice vistas, stopping to visit local villages like Ulukhaktok (population 402[2]). Fares started at $22,000.


This journey was not without danger. The Serenity faced unpredictable weather and uncharted icy waters with no rescue bases.[3] In case of disaster, an icebreaker ship, the RSS Shackleton, accompanied the Serenity with helicopters and emergency rations. Before the trip, Crystal Cruises worked on evacuation plans with both the US and Canadian Coast Guards.[4]

With the inaugural journey complete, Crystal Cruises is planning on making the Arctic cruise a regular offering. In addition to taking bookings for Summer 2017, it has announced the construction of the multi-million-dollar Endeavor, “the world’s first purpose-built polar class mega-yacht.”[5]

As it ramps up its operations in the Arctic, Crystal Cruises has a few obstacles to consider.

Environmental Regulation

Critics claim Crystal Cruises’ presence in the Arctic is endangering the very ecosystem it brought its passengers to see.[6] Although the Serenity used low-emissions fuel and cautious waste-disposal programs, those may not suffice forever.

Crystal Cruises will have to comply with two sets of environmental regulation: that set by the International Maritime Organization and the more restrictive set by individual countries[7] such as Canada.[8] Anticipating and lobbying for favorable regulation is critical to the success of future Serenity cruises as well as the construction of the Endeavor.

Local Welcome

The Serenity made stops at Inuit villages throughout the cruise, to mixed reactions from locals. While some welcome the money, others worry they do not have the infrastructure for so many visitors. Others worry the cruise is aggravating an existing problem: the wildlife, their source of food, is disappearing with the ecosystem.[9]

Given the existing national concern around the wellbeing of the Inuit,[10] Crystal Cruises should prepare contingency plans in case either the villagers or Canada says that passengers are no longer welcome ashore.

Territorial Disputes

Canada claims the Northwest Passage as its own, while the US argues it is international territory.[11] The outcome of this dispute has concrete ramifications.

Currently, Canada allows the Serenity to travel through the Northwest Passage. But the country could easily deny it safe passage on the aforementioned environmental or social grounds. If the Passage were international straits, the Serenity would be concerned only with international regulation.

Canada presently takes responsibility for rescue in case of emergency. But its seven icebreakers are not sufficient to patrol the whole Arctic area. Russia, the US, and other Arctic countries would gladly swoop in to the rescue, if only to prove—through Canada’s incapability—that the waters should be international.[12]

Should disaster strike, Crystal Cruises could be caught in the crosshairs of an international dispute. Let’s hope all passengers and crew would still get rescued.

Looking Forward

Although Crystal Cruises has the frontrunner advantage in this logistically complex journey, competitors will not be far behind. Increased cruise traffic amplifies the risk to the ecosystem, the strain on village entertainment, and the complications of rescue operations.

Looks like it won’t be smooth sailing for Crystal Cruises from here on out.

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[1] Andrew Revkin, “Where Ice Once Crushed Ships, Open Water Beckons,” New York Times September 24, 2016., accessed November 2016.

[2] Chris Sorenson, “The One Percent Are Coming to the Arctic,” Maclean’s Magazine, July 19, 2016., accessed November 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Christina Nunez, “A Luxury Liner Is About to Sail the Arctic’s Northwest Passage,” National Geographic, August 16, 2016., accessed November 2016.

[5] “Crystal Cruises Announces the World’s Largest Megayacht, Crystal Endeavor,” press release, March 14, 2016, on Crystal Cruises’ website., accessed November 2016.

[6] Eva Holland and Katie Orlinsky, “Apocalypse Tourism? Cruising the Melting Arctic Ocean,” Bloomberg Businessweek, November 2016., accessed November 2016.

[7] CLIA Environmental Sustainability Report 2016, p. 5,, accessed November 2016.

[8] Transport Canada, “Cruise Ships,”, accessed November 2016.

[9] Robin McKie, “Inuit Fear They Will Be Overwhelmed as “Extinction Tourism” Descends on Arctic,” August 20, 2016., accessed November 2016.

[10] Ed Struzik, “As Arctic Melts, Inuit Face Tensions with Outside World,” Yal Environment 360, October 1, 2012., accessed November 2016.

[11] Elizabeth Elliot-Meisel, “Politics, Pride, and Precedent: The United States and Canada in the Northwest Passage,” Ocean Development and International Law (2009), p. 204.

[12] Chris Sorenson, “The One Percent Are Coming to the Arctic,” Maclean’s Magazine, July 19, 2016., accessed November 2016.


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Student comments on The Battle at the Top of the World

  1. This was a very interesting post about a burgeoning issue I did not know much about. It’s a troubling matter as it is a company that is actually benefiting from the effects of climate change.
    I wonder–will other industries begin to take advantage of this passage soon? For example, will trade/shipping start to utilize these new shipping routes, and what will be the effect? Should it be stopped or should we benefit from this (with hopefully some restrictions)? If these routes are used effectively, they could actually reduce shipping distance, which would decrease fuel consumption, which ultimately, ironically enough, has a positive effect on climate change.

  2. Very interesting take on climate change – that it represents an opportunity, not a challenge to some organisations! I couldn’t help thinking that if the overall effects of this cruise are damaging to the environment and the arctic ice (which I would guess it is), then surely in this case the responsibilty for prevention and control must lie with governments and regulators (whether it be Canadian, US or international). Unfortunately, I think there are always going to be people and organisations who seek to benefit from seriously negative events, so in this case, where an individual organisation has made a first move into this space, it’s regulators who have to take the responsibilty on their shoulders to set a precedent – if it’s not them, then who else is it?

  3. This is a very interesting perspective on climate change effects on a business. It seems that Chrystal Cruises has no incentive make any changes to their current actions. This being said, it seems to me that it would be the government’s job to implement regulations and limitations to help save this region. I realize that you outlined the issue of territorial disputes between the US and Canada, but I believe because this is a “new” region that both countries should meet to officially recognize the region as Canada’s or international waters. And we thought all parts of the world had been discovered…

  4. I also wrote about Crystal Cruises in my post. I really enjoyed how you broke down the issues with respect to regulation, territorial disputes and local perception. It made me think about my post differently and highlighted what might be a good course of action.

    I think that there are opportunities and threats alike in this situation – capitalizing on both in the correct manner could launch CC as a leader in the industry and set the right example. A win-win for both the environment and the cruise line.

    My biggest fear was that their initial voyage could encourage lower cost (less responsible) players to enter the market. They should actively reach out and partner with Canada and the International Maritime Organization to establish and update more stringent regulations and requirements now. Requirements in line with their current strict planning and execution – and perhaps more if environmentally feasible and fit. That way it would not only be beneficial from a business side reducing cost cutting competition but it would also open up an important dialogue and better adjustment of the current cruises to support the environment. The collaborative approach might be an interesting way for all parties to adjust in the face of climate change.

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