Polar tourists see an icy world melt

Updated 26 November 2015

Polar tourists see an icy world melt

PARIS: They go to paddle between glistening icebergs or ski on blinding white ice, but a rising number of polar tourists get to see something else, too: the monumental changes wrought by global warming.
Polar holidaymakers see the ice shelves and soaring glaciers thaw before their eyes, making them important witnesses to a threatened landscape, activists and tour companies say.
The Antarctic Peninsula and Arctic are considered global hotspots, warming at double the average rate for the planet.
Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier, one of the biggest single contributors to world sea-level rise, is melting irreversibly, scientists say.
The Arctic ice cap is melting faster than ever before, threatening to push so much fresh water into the North Atlantic that it could disrupt how the ocean regulates global temperatures, a prominent oceanographer has warned.
On Norway’s Lofoten Islands north of the Arctic Circle, the warmer temperatures are noticeable.
“To find yourself walking about in shorts with the temperature 25 degrees (C, 77F) at the beginning of June in Svolvaer, when the average temperature for the previous 10 years was 12 degrees, that is completely unheard of,” said Margaux Maury, a French tourist who spent 10 days on the archipelago.
“It really makes you realize that global warming has taken hold.”
Such experiences could help sound the alarm about the impact of global warming at the poles, said French adventurer Nicolas Varnier.
“People should go discover the polar zone, but of course not in any old way,” said Vanier, who has directed a number of films set in the Arctic.
“It could be a great opportunity as we need ambassadors to stand witness to the upheavals caused by global warming, which are so rapid and strong that even nature has not had the time to react,” he added.
The director, whose films include “Belle & Sebastian,” “Wolf” and “The Last Trapper,” said polar tourism has become more interesting as the regions have become frozen deserts.
“If I had made my trips to the far north a century ago I could have stopped in small villages, but today all the indigenous people are now concentrated in airport-cities,” said Vanier, who is known for traveling with sled dogs.
Some 70,000 tourists visited Greenland in 2014, and more than 40,000 visited Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, according to the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators.
Interest in polar tourism is increasing, said Daniel Skjeldam, head of the Norwegian company Hurtigruten, which specializes in polar cruises.
The company registered an eight percent rise in guest nights between 2013 and 2014, he said.
“By traveling in the polar waters you can see some of the challenges that we face in the world today like melting glaciers and climate change,” Skjeldam said.
In the Antarctic, some 40,000 tourists, mostly aboard cruise ships, are expected in the 2015-16 season, a 50 percent increase from just four years ago, according to the IAATO association of tour operators that organize to the region.
About a quarter of those will not set foot on Antarctica, however, thanks to a 1994 treaty that protects its fragile environment.
The treaty imposes a limit on ships that dock to under 500 passengers, and allows only 100 people ashore at a time. Those who go ashore must have the soles of their boots washed and their belongings brushed off to prevent the introduction of diseases and non-native species.
“In Antarctica, mass tourism will not happen because of the regulations,” said Skjeldam.
“I would love to see the same regulations in the Arctic waters, so that you do not get people acting like cowboys,” he said, calling for limits to prevent ships with 5,000 passengers and huge fuel tanks from plying the nearly pristine waters.
Eight countries that share the Arctic — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — have adopted common rules to protect the area but they are less restrictive than in the Antarctic, said Lionel Habasque, head of French tour operator Grand Nord Grand Large.
Greenland is in the process of adopting tougher rules, he said, but for the moment the size of cruise ships is limited only by the fact they must dock in one of the country’s three largest ports.
Habasque’s company, which organizes trips for between 10 and 140 passengers for hiking, nordic skiing or kayaking among icebergs, has seen its business grow by 20 percent amid a surge in popularity for polar trips.
“There is nothing more magical than to be at the reins of your own team of dogs on a vast frozen plain, to hear nothing but the sled’s runners glide through the snow,” said Dominique Albouy, a tour leader at Grand Nord Grand Large.


Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

Updated 16 August 2019

Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

  • Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons
  • The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation

UPHAM, New Mexico: Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.
The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.
From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.
Earthen tones help ground visitors on the first floor. The social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.
Company officials, offering the first glimpse of the facility Thursday, say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.
There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.
Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.
“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?’” he said.
Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as anchor tenant.
At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.
Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.
There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.
Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.
“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.
Branson will be among them. About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.
That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.
The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.