Standing at the bow of a ship about 80 degrees from the North Pole, Franklin Braeckman watches a mother polar bear and her calf on huge pack ice.
âIt’s a time when you realize how small you are, how fragile everything is and how beautiful everything is. It’s mind-blowing, âhe says.
As Head of Marketing and Sales at Ocean wide expeditionsFranklin is very familiar with these impressive sites. Taking thousands of passengers every year to discover them too, he never loses sight of how incredible it is.
“When you see huge icebergs or see polar bears on the ice floe … it’s a time when the passengers are all quiet and all you hear is the click of a few lenses.”
Oceanwide Expeditions has been operating for 25 years, reallocating scientific research vessels to transport guests to the far reaches of the Arctic and Antarctic.
He has an ethical approach to tourism, making sure his cruises never disturb the local flora and fauna and keeping groups small to avoid overtourism.
But the company does more than just reduce its impact. The passengers of his expeditions around the Arctic Circle help to clean up the surroundings which offer them this unique experience.
Passengers clean up Svalbard beaches
Each year, Oceanwide participates in a collaborative initiative between the Governor of Svalbard and the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO).
It is a founding member of the program, where passengers find themselves stuck in the disposal of waste from the shores of the island.
âIt’s concrete, you use your own hands to clean the beaches,â Franklin explains.
Svalbard is located in a not-so-gentle place where the currents wash away plastic waste from fishing industries in the northern hemisphere, endangering local wildlife. In August 2019, Oceanwide cleaned up 1,000 kg of plastic waste from a beach on the island and, collectively, tour operators account for about 20% of the cleanup operation.
Plastic waste is transported to Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, where it is analyzed to provide data on ocean plastics.
AECO is participating in the Arctic Circle Operation as part of a larger UNEP program called the Clean-up the Seas Campaign. Its goal is to tackle the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic pumped into the ocean each year.
But the Svalbard expedition is part of a larger culture of conscious travel, according to Franklin.
âWhatever we find when we go ashore, we take it with us,â he says.
âIt’s like when you walk in the woods and find a plastic bag. You can’t pretend you haven’t seen it and you have a choice: either leave it there or you take it. It’s such a small thing.
Education, conservation and change
Oceanwide’s approach to waste disposal and low impact is part of a larger culture of education and awareness. The expeditions attract passengers whose interests range from photography to conservation and birdwatching.
âMost of them have dreamed of these trips for years or saved for these trips because it’s still quite expensive,â Franklin explains.
âThe people on these ships are very passionate about these topics. “
In 2019, ticket holders came from 65 different nations and a vessel with a capacity of 108 had 19 different nationalities on board.
âWhich makes the bar conversation really interesting,â Franklin laughs.
Along with the field experience, the cruises also offer educational lectures on conservation issues. These often have a big impact on the outlook of passengers when combined with the real-life experiences they live.
âIt sounds like a cheesy marketing phrase but we bring back ambassadors, that’s right,â Franklin says.
Outreach missions provided by Oceanwide cover both polar regions and include albatross conservation in South Georgia.
The company uses the latest green technologies to make its ships as environmentally friendly as possible. It takes measures such as desalination of seawater on its trips to reduce waste and its new models reduce fuel consumption by 35% per passenger. Unfortunately, polar conditions make complete electrification impossible.
âYou can’t live without having an impact, but you can drastically reduce the impact,â says Franklin.
The rise of regenerative travel
This model of tourism is absolutely necessary, so that more people in the future can see the wonders of a polar bear cub on an ice cap, but also in a wider sense.
Alongside this long-time shipping operator, a trend is now emerging for regenerator, rather than just sustainable, travel.
In 2020, six NGOs came together to form the Future of Tourism Coalition which defined 13 principles to paint a regenerative vision of the future for the tourism industry. These principles include improving the health of ecosystems and a more equitable distribution of benefits to inhabitants.
The founder of Conscious Travel, Anna Pollock, has spent five years studying the application of regeneration principles to the tourism sector and believes that the time has come for a new framework.
âConventional tourism extracts value, regenerative tourism is designed to generate more value than the old model,â she says.
âThe old model is completely collapsing and sustainability is not enough. There is no clarity as to what you are supporting, if it is the old industrial model that will not work.
She adds that the IPCC report should signal a change in attitude in the industry.
âWe have to think together and find a better way, if you don’t understand that, open your eyes and get a feel for the big picture.