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arctic iceburg

Interview

Anders La Cour Vahl: For Responsible Arctic tourism

In his own words, the Assistant Director of AECO, tells us about this important organisation and the power of procedure.

Pelorus understands the importance of making a trip memorable, something that will stay with you for a lifetime. However, whilst we understand how fundamental experience is, it’s crucial that steps are being taken to protect and respect the environments in which our clients find themselves exploring. With climate change and responsible travel at the forefront of mainstream media reporting, and at the centre of how we operate at Pelorus, we all understand the fragility of the more remote regions now opening up to tourism and the importance of managing travel operations in these destinations. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) does just this through strict guidelines that help preserve biodiversity and local communities as well as through their Clean Seas initiatives. As proud members of AECO, Pelorus Yacht Expeditions sought out its new Assistant Director, Anders La Cour Vahl, to discuss his background and to find out more about how AECO works to secure a bright future for the Arctic.

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to your current position? 

With an MA in anthropology and history, I started my career in 1994 working in the Greenland tourism industry. First as a field guide and later as a tourist manager, where I had my first assignments organising activities for visiting cruise ships. Following this, for more than 15 years I worked at the National Tourist Board of Greenland and was responsible for cruise tourism development, which meant I worked closely with AECO. Working towards sustainable cruise development in the Arctic with a high degree of local involvement had always been important to me, and so it was only natural that when the position became available at AECO, I jumped at the opportunity.

Can you summarise the role of AECO?

Founded in 2003, AECO has become crucial in representing the concerns and views of Arctic expedition cruise operators. We are dedicated to managing environmentally friendly, safe, and considerate practices for both cruise and yacht tourism and for expedition operators. Striving to set the highest possible operating standards, AECO has over 75 international members, including 46 vessel operators and 60 expedition cruise vessels. It is AECO’s responsibility to represent the great majority of these operations in the Arctic.

“We are dedicated to managing environmentally friendly, safe and considerate practices for both cruise and yacht tourism and for expedition operators.”

How does AECO work to protect the Arctic cruising grounds?

Overseeing almost all expedition cruise and yacht operations in the Arctic, AECO enforce a framework for our members that is stricter than that at the national level. Our compulsory guidelines leave nothing to the imagination and cover areas such as biosecurity, cultural remains, operations, vegetation, wildlife, community guidelines and clean up initiatives.

The Arctic has not escaped the ever-increasing issue of ocean pollution. In response to this and alongside local authorities, AECO initiated the soon to be 20-year-old Clean Up Svalbard Program, giving yacht and cruise passengers the chance to contribute by clearing beaches of waste. This has had a staggering impact and helped clean over 40 metric tons of garbage throughout the years. We have also signed an agreement with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to collaborate through AECO’s Clean Seas project. This will help to reduce the amount of single-use plastic used onboard cruise vessels in the region. In addition, AECO has also pushed for stricter guidelines by banning the recreational use of drones, and having signed up to the Arctic Commitment, we are calling for the phase-out of HFO (Heavy Fuel Oil) aboard AECO member vessels, which can have catastrophic effects on the water. Working closely with local tourism stakeholders, we ensure that the cruise and private yacht industries also represent local benefits with our Community Guidelines.

Are there any significant changes you have seen in the number of vessels travelling for pleasure and their attitude towards cruising in the Arctic? 

I believe we will continue to see an increased number of vessels, both commercial and private, cruising in the Arctic in the coming years. We have already seen a surge of interest with existing operators expanding and new operators entering, reflecting the demand for unique experiences. Most operators have an increased focus on sustainability and mitigation of negative impacts on the environment and local communities. With this conscious attitude, AECO members continue to grow and we see this as a sign of genuine interest in taking responsibility for sustainable tourism development in the Arctic. As more private vessels travel to the region, there is an increased risk of people operating outside of our guidelines, which may inadvertently negatively affect local communities and nature. Therefore, a strong organised Arctic expedition cruise and yacht industry is vital to the future of the region and its waters.

How can yachts visiting the region minimise their footprint? 

The Arctic is vast, but there is no guarantee that you’ll have certain sites or community visits to yourself. As a consequence most AECO operators follow similar itineraries, visiting the same areas but scheduling around other visiting vessels, to avoid overcrowding at any given time. Ensuring that local communities are informed and ready when visited gives guests the best Arctic experience possible. For yachts, we offer an important toolbox for minimising negative impact and coordinating sailing plans whilst curtailing the impact on the environment.

“The immense natural powers, the grandness and the quiet of the Arctic nature humbles me in a good way and sets my daily worries to one side, encouraging a healthy perspective.”

Considering the Arctic region encompasses so many areas, and with your extended time in the region, is there any one thing that has made a lasting impression?

Sometimes we humans tend to feel that we can control everything, and our issues are the most crucial. The immense natural powers, the grandness and the quiet of the Arctic nature humbles me in a good way and sets my daily worries to one side, encouraging a healthy perspective. It is true wellness for the mind. However, what really makes the Arctic so special, is the people living here. The way people are genuinely interested in each other, care for each other, and are willing to help, gives you a very intimate sense of togetherness.

The face of tourism is changing at a rapid pace and the appetite for unique experiences is only growing. AECO plays an integral part in making sure that this newfound spotlight on the Arctic does not burn a hole in the region. A surge in tourism over the last 10 – 15 years has brought a beneficial awareness and profitability to local communities. Guided by Anders and his team, Pelorus and other AECO members can carry on supporting these communities while adhering to the regulations and best conduct guidelines put in place to preserve the Arctic’s fragile and beautiful cruising grounds.