China’s Belt and Road Initiative moves into the Arctic

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When China convened its Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last month, most of the attention focused on the initiative’s plans for transportation infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass and the Indian Ocean. Last week, however, China formally incorporated the Arctic into its plans for maritime cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, also sometimes called One Belt, One Road. The Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiativereleased on June 20 by China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the State Oceanic Administration, explains that a “blue economic passage” is “envisioned leading up to Europe via the Arctic Ocean.”

This “blue economic passage” would be along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, the Arctic shipping lane that hugs the country’s north coast. Over email, Dr. Marc Lanteigne, a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand and a China expert, explained, “This paper is the first official confirmation that the Arctic Ocean is among the ‘blue economic passages’ Beijing is seeking to develop.”

The other two routes included in the vision consist of the China-Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean Sea blue economic passage and the China-Oceania-South Pacific blue economic passage. (Maybe the latter explains Fiji’s somewhat perplexing attendance at the Belt and Road Forum and its unceremonious closure of its representative office in Taiwan last month.) The policy document largely focuses on China’s achievements and plans along the first route, where the government has assisted with the development of ports and industrial parks in places like Myanmar, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Greece. While fewer fine-scale geographic details are provided about the Arctic, the document notes:

Participating in Arctic affairs. China is willing to work with all parties in conducting scientific surveys of navigational routes, setting up land-based monitoring stations, carrying out research on climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic, as well as providing navigational forecasting services. China supports efforts by countries bordering the Arctic in improving marine transportation conditions, and encourages Chinese enterprises to take part in the commercial use of the Arctic route. China is willing to carry out surveys on potential resources in the Arctic region in collaboration with relevant countries, and to strengthen cooperation in clean energy with Arctic countries. Chinese enterprises are encouraged to join in sustainable exploration of Arctic resources in a responsible way. China will actively participate in the events organized by Arctic-related international organizations.

Interestingly, the document does not review China’s accomplishments to date in the Arctic or, more specifically, along the Northern Sea Route. Yet for years already, the Chinese government and affiliated companies and organizations have been eyeing its development. In 2013, Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO sent the first-ever multipurpose ship through the Northern Sea Route. Last year, five COSCO vessels sailed through the icy route, a company record. In 2015, Chinese banks lent $12 billion to the Yamal liquefied natural gas project, which lies in the middle of the Northern Sea Route. China’s Silk Road Fund, an investment vehicle created by the government to finance Belt and Road Initiative projects, has a 9.9% stake in the Yamal project as well. So why did it take so long for China to officially incorporate the Arctic into its Belt and Road Initiative?

Lanteigne noted that China was reluctant to do so for two reasons. First, unlike Japan or South Korea, China has not released an official Arctic policy and is still in the process of collecting data before doing so. Second, Lanteigne offered, “Once China began to deepen its Arctic diplomacy, along with references to the country as a ‘near-Arctic state’, there were concerns among other Arctic actors, especially the United States, that Beijing far northern interests were primarily motivated by regional resources and that China was seeking to challenge the political status quo in the region. Chinese policymakers have been seeking to dispel those concerns by placing greater emphasis on scientific diplomacy and advocating bilateral partnerships in the study of the affects of local climate change.” He drew attention to Beijing’s careful framing of its investments in the Arctic, from Norway to Russia to Greenland, as joint ventures. This practice fits in line with the Belt and Road Initiative’s larger narrative of, in the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, embodying “the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.”

In Russia, this discourse has won over officials at the highest level. Moscow supports China’s Belt and Road Initiative and generally condones the country’s involvement in the Arctic. At the Belt and Road Forum, President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov were two of the most prominent attendees. In a speech there, Putin expressed his support for China’s transcontinental infrastructure plans. He proclaimed, “By proposing China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, President Xi Jinping has demonstrated an example of a creative approach toward fostering integration in energy, infrastructure, transport, industry, and humanitarian collaboration.”

Russia is partly keen for Chinese investment in its infrastructure because capital from the West has dried up. Russian diplomat Gleb Ivashentsov, who has served as Russian ambassador to Myanmar and South Korea, stated in an interview, “If we talk about Moscow’s turn to the East, it is fully justified. The Asian region is the engine of economic development, whereas Europe is marking time. In Asia, we can take both technology and investment. From the West, we see only sanctions and nothing more.”

Yet some in Russia view China’s plans more suspiciously. Writing in The Maritime News of Russia, Anatoly Korovin, Captain-Coordinator of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s Maritime Rescue Center, warns that the Chinese government does not believe that Russia should exercise full control over shipping along the Northern Sea Route. Korovin argued, “The greatest threat to the security interests of the Russian Federation is an attempt by some countries (notably Denmark, the USA, Japan and China) to achieve recognition of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport routes with freedom of navigation.” At the same time, he suggested the possibility that China may be interested in creating a joint venture to manage the Northern Sea Route, which could bring with investment in maritime infrastructure. Such plans were not fleshed out by the policy document released last week, but this may be the direction Beijing seeks to advance in the coming years. 

In Beijing last month, Putin expressed in his speech, “Greater Eurasia is not an abstract geopolitical arrangement, but, without exaggeration, a truly civilization-wide project looking toward the future.” Putin’s distinction between an “abstract geopolitical arrangement” and a “civilizational-wide project” is interesting. The allure of his earlier pet project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is fading as Eurasian countries are increasingly drawn east rather than west. The EEU counts Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia as its members, while the Belt and Road Initiative reportedly involves some 64 countries besides China. And where the EEU could in fact be called an “abstract geopolitical arrangement,” the Belt and Road Initiative is a project that is being realized, albeit in fits and starts. Beijing’s efforts to build ports, railroads, highways, and corridors are stacking up incrementally in many directions, including now in the north. In many ways, the Russian government is pinning its hopes for national economic development on the Arctic. If Chinese capital can make these visions a reality by turning the frigid Northern Sea Route into a “blue economic corridor,” this may benefit both Moscow and Beijing – so long as they agree to disagree on the status of the shipping lane under international law.

With the formal inclusion of the Arctic into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, it’s clear that Beijing is becoming more comfortable with being forthcoming about its interests in Arctic shipping and resources rather than solely emphasizing science and climate change. Lanteigne believes, “It’s likely that future Chinese projects in the Arctic will be increasingly economic in nature, especially as more of the Arctic Ocean becomes accessible.” Moscow will be watching with a healthy dose of anticipation and suspicion.

Polar Code enters into force, but doubts remain about its ability to protect environment

The Silversea Silver Explorer ship at Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

The Silversea Silver Explorer ship at Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

On January 1 of this year, the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code entered into force. The new regulations are intended to improve safety at sea and environmental protection in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Years in the making, the Polar Code couldn’t have come sooner, for the number of vessels, particularly cruise ships, in the Arctic grows each year. Cruises are increasingly venturing into the Arctic in order to cater to tourists seeking destinations marketed as pristine and untouched. And indeed at a regional scale, the world’s northernmost oceans are relatively unpolluted compared to the rest of the world, as the map below reveals.

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Ocean pollution levels in the Arctic in 2013. Data: National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Map: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics.

Yet trading a holiday in the Mediterranean for one in the Arctic comes with consequences for fragile polar ecosystems. In the Arctic, cruise ships are often mentioned in the same breath as “ecotourism,” with tourism seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to industries like oil and gas or mining. Yet cruise ships generate large amounts of pollution. In terms of wastewater generation, cruise ships can also be worse offenders than lightly staffed cargo ships simply by virtue of having so many people on board.

Cruise-related pollution includes black water (sewage), gray water (from sinks, laundries, showers, etc.), and oily bilge water. Cruise ships also spew black carbon into the air, especially when they burn heavy fuel oil (HFO), which organizations like HFO-Free Arctic are trying to ban from the region. When the soot released into the air from burning HFO falls onto ice and snow in the Arctic, it can accelerate melting and, by consequence, climate change.

Epitomizing the boom in Arctic shipping in part thanks to more navigable waters, last summer, the first-ever cruise ship transit of the Northwest Passage took place. Though Crystal Serenity’s pioneering voyage attracted major headlines, more modest cruises into the Arctic are arguably exerting a bigger overall impact. Crystal Serenity had some 800 passengers and at least 600 crew. Yet according to John Kaltenstein, a Senior Policy Analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., 10 other cruise ships with over 1,000 passengers traveled to the Arctic last year. That makes for 10,000 people who sailed through the Arctic in addition to Crystal Serenity’s high-paying customers, all leaving various forms of pollution in their wake.

Many of these cruises travel to places like Svalbard and Iceland, where high levels of marine traffic have resulted in elevated ocean pollution. The waters around Iceland, in fact, appear almost indistinguishable from the heavily trafficked waters around the United Kingdom. Though Iceland is imagined as lying on the frigid periphery of Europe, the high levels of pollution around its coastline reveal its deep integration into the North Atlantic shipping network.

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Polluted waters around northern Norway and Svalbard.

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Polluted waters around Iceland and the North Atlantic.

Even Greenland, which sees a lot of smaller-scale traffic from personal vessels and cargo ships making deliveries up and down the coast, has relatively polluted waters.

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Crystal Serenity voluntarily adhered to stricter environmental controls than required by law, including using marine distillate fuel, which is a better grade than HFO. But Arctic cruises that are away from the spotlight are not likely to voluntarily follow the same standards set by the high-profile voyage.

That’s where the Polar Code could come in useful, but the policy is not as strong as it could be. The regulations ban heavy fuel oil in Antarctica, but not the Arctic. Attendants at the 10th Arctic Shipping Summit in Montreal next week will discuss whether to expand the ban into the Arctic. The Polar Code also prohibits oily discharge, but it fails to mention of gray water even though it can introduce “faecal coliform bacteria, nutrients, food waste, and medical and dental waste” into the surrounding seas, according to a report associated with the 2013 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.

Poster of the Polar Code's regulations pertaining to the environment.

Poster of the Polar Code’s regulations pertaining to the environment. Source: IMO

For a story I wrote for this month’s issue of The Maritime Executive on pollution solutions for the global cruise shipping industry, I interviewed John Kaltenstein, senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., regarding the environmental impacts of Arctic cruising. He was kind enough to let me republish our wide-ranging conversation in full. We touched on the Polar Code, cruise-related pollution, the fate of the Arctic Ocean under Trump, and what the deliberate pollution cover-up at Princess Cruise Lines means for the Arctic.

MB: How will the new Polar Code affect cruise shipping?

JK: In a nutshell, I don’t think it will affect it that much. There seems to be a tendency or a movement of larger cruise ships into the Arctic. I think our records indicated that there were 11 that had over 1,000 passengers and crew that traveled in Arctic in 2016, and I don’t think that trend will diminish in any way going forward – especially in light of the successful cruise ship activity of the Serenity through the Northwest Passage last summer. So I think the industry is flourishing. From a lot of parts of the world – Asia, Oceania – we’ll see continued activity into the Arctic. I don’t think the Code will constrain that activity.”

MB: Will the Polar Code help reduce pollution? 

JK: The environmental groups were fairly critical of the environmental portion of the Polar Code. Heavy fuel oil was a big issue for us. There’s a recommendation there with respect to the Arctic, but we felt more should have been done with respect to a fuel that poses so much risk to the region.

Some of the other provisions in the Code also didn’t improve the situation all that much. When you look at the sewage provisions, we don’t believe they added a lot. There, of course, is no Polar Code provision with respect to gray water, which is a big issue when you’re talking about cruise ships – the amount of wastewater at issue. Those are the areas we felt are deficient and still are. Hopefully, they’ll be addressed at some time going forward. As for now, there are definitely some large gaps when you’re talking about pollution control and some of the environmental provisions in the code. And cruise ships do represent a lot of waste stream. And especially in an area like the fragile Arctic, we believe a lot more can be done. We’ll have to look to other measures besides the Polar Code.

MB: Do you think cruise ships could take it on themselves to try to reduce pollution? 

JK: A lot can be done voluntarily. There will probably be some focus on what cruise ship lines are doing in the Arctic. As I mentioned, with the 11 cruise ships with 1,000 passengers or more, more and more lines will be entering into those waters, and I think they should be evaluated because the types of operations can really differ.

The Serenity did a number of positive things including using marine distillate fuel, but many aren’t sure that others will follow suit in terms going above and beyond certain environmental aspects. I think this is a situation where the market and information can make a difference in terms of environmental performance in terms of the industry. Because the Code is not going to provide the stringency we need, and national regulations do vary a good deal. So this is one of those areas where we could see some significant improvement by looking at what actors are doing. If consumers and policymakers need information about practices, those voyages need to be transparent. That would help a lot. Then we can talk about setting high standards and using good practices. There’s been some good stuff in the Arctic Council about best practices, and we’re hoping these can translate into real world benefits and minimizing risks. The environmental community would like to see that, as well as international organizations in the Arctic, policy makers, and the Council.

In the short term, that’s what we’re going to have to look at. We might see some efforts at the national level. And you know, if we’re talking about voluntary measures, the lines can do that immediately this coming season. We’re hopeful and I think the issues in the Arctic are being covered a lot more – somewhat in mainstream press, but definitely in niche and industry press. Sea ice and climate change have definitely been getting some attention in the mainstream press as to how that’s opened up the Arctic for travel and leisure.

MB: What is the number one threat posed by Arctic cruising?

JK: The number one threat is still represented by heavy fuel oil in terms of both spill [possibility] but also the pollution profile in terms of warming and air quality impacts. I think we could do without it. We have been doing without it in some parts of the world for a good chunk of time. For us, it really comes down to the industry showing the will to be an environmentally responsible actor. I think the rhetoric is often there, their professing to be responsible actors, but the will is often lacking. You’re judged on what you do up there, and this is one of those very discrete cases where you’re operating on heavy fuel oil or liquefied natural gas. What are you doing up there to make a difference in terms of your impact or profile? I think we have a good precedent with the Serenity. Hopefully other lines in the region can follow suit. It’s definitely a good start.

There are other issues. Wastewater needs to be taken into account: what kinds of treatment systems, what are they doing with their gray water – it’s a concern for environmental groups and Arctic organizations, especially in the Bering Strait area. There’s lots of concern about what this influx of cruise ship activity, especially large cruise ship activities, will bring in terms of discharges and how it will affect their way of life and subsistence practices. That’s a very real issue and if you’re familiar with the recent executive order with the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resiliency Area, it’s a good indication of how concerned they are because there is specific reference to discharge in the order.

MB: How do you think the Trump administration will impact regulations on pollution in the Arctic?

JK: I’m hopeful there will be a continuation of the good policies that have put forward by the Trudeau and Obama administrations to safeguard the region. We’ll see what transpires. I think they made a very good start, both countries, especially of late, to chart out what course they’d like to see in the Arctic.

MB: Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JK: The situation with Princess and the criminal charges and the fine1 – that brings up some real issues in terms of compliance monitoring. This is an issue that concerns me a lot with respect to shipping and the cruise industry. If you look at the different regimes, in Alaska, we have a fairly comprehensive regime in place that pertains to their waters that has stringent regulations with respect to sewage and gray water effluent standards that it must meet including permitting, sampling, monitoring, and record-keeping. It’s a whole gamut of things that one looks at. We also have Ocean-Ranger – independent 3rd party monitors.

And the Princess case is an important one because I think it shows if you peel back the curtain, and you look beyond that, you see that the situation with Princess was largely premised on a whistleblower incident. Had we not had that, those violations could have continued to this day and we would not know about it – and the records go back to 2005 in terms of when the improprieties started at Princess. I think that should give people pause that especially when operating in very remote regions, if there’s not a third party Ocean Ranger or some kind of independent monitor in place, we don’t really know what’s going on at sea. And the practices like these, like we saw with the Princess Caribbean and some of the other Princess ships, and what was also admitted to, and other Carnival family ships, we’re left in the dark. And we don’t have a rigorous enough compliance monitoring system in place for temperate waters, let alone the Arctic. So that gives me a lot of concern.

I think policy makers and others really have to look at this seriously and the industry itself. Obviously they’re going to be under this court-ordered environmental compliance plan, but there’s also Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, etc. – they weren’t part of this settlement. So I think we really have to look seriously and evaluate our compliance schemes, especially in the Arctic. And I haven’t been given any reassurance that we’ll be in good hands when we’re operating more in the Arctic, and that’s a very real concern. That for me would be up there with actual pollution source. It’s one of the biggest deficiencies that I see right now. Because obviously the Coast Guard is doing the best they can with limited resources, but they’re not out there on the ships with every line, every cruise ship, in the engine room, etc.

And you know, practices like these that we saw with the Princess incident could foreseeably occur in the Arctic and we would not know. We wouldn’t have the ability to stop those. That’s a problem. I think Friends of the Earth are going be looking more at what can be done in terms of these regimes to see what we can do to make sure the environment is being protected. I think looking at Alaska and maybe elsewhere to see what has worked to see that the standards will be complied with is a very important way to go.


***

In December 2016, Princess Cruise Lines was fined $40 million after the company pleaded guilty to seven felony charges of illegally dumping oily waste into the sea between 2005 and 2013.

The first-ever cruise through the Northwest Passage has set sail

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A tourist vessel outside the hamlet of Kimmirut in Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 License.

In 1969, the first commercial cargo ship sailed through the Northwest Passage.

In 2013, the first bulk carrier traversed those same icy waters.

And today from the southern Alaskan port of Seward, the luxury cruise vessel Crystal Serenity set off on its historic 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage. If it successfully completes the journey, Crystal Serenity will be the first-ever cruise ship to ply these waters. You can keep track of the ship’s location hereCrystal Serenity has sailed on cruises around Antarctica before, but this will be it’s first time heading to the northern polar region.

The 69,000-ton, 820-foot ship is ferrying 800-odd guests, all of whom paid at least $21,855 for their ticket (except maybe the lone travel journalist, who will be blogging about the cruise). The fact that Crystal Cruises, a luxury outfitter if there ever was one, spells out a dress code for its passengers should give you an idea of the type of well-heeled passengers they hope to attract. Here’s one sampler warning: “After 6 pm, casual daytime attire is not appropriate. Shorts and baseball caps are not permitted for men or women.” In other words, please keep all those “ALASKA: THE LAST FRONTIER” baseball caps you picked up at the airport in Anchorage in your suitcase for the next month.

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Crystal Serenity in Antarctica. Photo: Crystal Cruises

The envy-inducing Northwest Passage itinerary includes stops in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and New England and will wrap up in New York City (where it’s been swelteringly humid lately). Passengers will have the opportunity to go out to shore in zodiacs with biologist guides, listen to lectures by the likes of University of British Columbia Professor Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic affairs, and yes – even watch a ventriloquist perform. (His name is Mark Merchant, in case you were wondering.) In case that isn’t enough, there will even be a gemstone trunk show while on board. All while those icebergs glide silently by.

Here are some photos of the types of vistas passengers will enjoy.

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A fjord on Baffin Island, where Crystal Serenity will sail on September 5. Photo: Adam Monier/Flickr. Creative Commons License 2.0

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An iceberg in Disko Bay off Ilulissat, which Crystal Serenity will visit on September 7. Photo: Sarah Cooley

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The town of Sisimiut, Greenland, where Crystal Serenity will dock on September 8.


Escort ship RMS Earnest Shackleton will guide the luxury yacht through the icy waters, while onboard, two experienced ice pilots will help the captain navigate. Crystal Serenity will also be using a higher grade of fuel than mandated to do its part to be green.

Still, despite the three years of preparation that have gone into making this voyage, a lot of concerns remain. First of all, just because the ice is melting doesn’t mean the waters are that much easier to sail. In fact, the opposite could be true since shifting sea ice makes for more volatile and unpredictable conditions. The Northwest Passage is already quite shallow and narrow in parts, and making matters worse, several parts of it have not been charted since the early 1900s. During my fieldwork in the Northwest Territories earlier this summer, one person told me that he thought Crystal Serenity’s crew would have to rely on old maps for some parts of the voyage.

Second, there is not a single hospital along the shores of the Northwest Passage. Children in Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, spend a day and a half flying 2,000 kilometers to Edmonton to get a mere tooth filled. There is a good hospital in a Inuvik and scattered medical facilities in the small towns that dot the Canadian Arctic, too. But in the event of a serious catastrophe in which hundreds of passengers require medical attention, the region just simply doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure.

Two years ago, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, I examined what would happen if a jet plane went down in the Arctic. That situation sounded scary, but those planes usually carry somewhere in the ballpark of 300 passengers. This cruise ship has over three times that.

For most people, a cruise through the Arctic is not going to be within a lifetime’s reach. But there is a way to sail through the north on the cheap.

Four years ago, I paid $73 for a 17-hour journey onboard a Hurtigruten ship from Tromsø to the Lofoten Islands. Hurtigruten ships are far more pedestrian than Crystal Cruises affairs. After all, they’re still pretty much working boats that ferry mail and supplies, along with tourists, up and down the coast of northern Norway. My ticket explained, “Our ships carry goods, vehicles and foot passengers between ports, during day and night, as an integral part of Norwegian daily life. Our ships are calling at ports around the clock. You may expect some noise and vibration in a few cabins during loading of goods.”

In hindsight, yes: I would willingly save over $21,000 to sail through the Arctic if it just meant that I had to put up with some noise. My cut-rate student fare didn’t buy me a room, but it did get me a blanket that I could cozy up with in the commons area once everyone else had retired to their cabins.

Once daylight broke, I stood outside on the icy deck with a group of German tourists, who all wore matching misshapen beanies that said “Hunting the Light.” This sort of kitsch is probably not what Crystal Cruises, enemy of all baseball-cap wearing Americans, has in mind.

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Beanie-wearing German tourists on board a Hurtigruten vessel off northern Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett

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A Hurtigruten ship: essentially a working vessel that carries tourists. Photo: Mia Bennett.


With Crystal Serenity focusing on the icy and pristine, it obviously won’t be taking tourists to see the blight that exists throughout the Canadian Arctic. Amongst the ruins of bygone development are untethered oil rigs, and perhaps soon, the Port of Churchill. Canada’s only deepwater Arctic port was shut for good earlier this month and is now hoping for a government bailout. These are the type of rusty, gritty places that you’d have a better chance of getting to with a good pair of boots than wingtips.

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An abandoned oil drilling platform off Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo: Mia Bennett


Although it’s unclear what will happen to the forlorn Port of Churchill, if all goes according to plan, Crystal Serenity will dock in New York City on September 17 and its passengers will waltz into the bejeweled night. If Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration doesn’t decide to rescue the port, perhaps Churchill could look to the Chinese. That first bulk carrier that sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2013 is owned by a Chinese-state owned company, the first cargo ship to make the trip in decades the following year was Chinese-chartered, and I’d venture that a fair number of tourists on Crystal Serenity are from China, too.

So the first-ever cruise through Canada’s fabled passage is headed northwest, but really in the Arctic, all signs are pointing east. I guess those people five hundred years ago who thought the Northwest Passage would lead to the riches of Cathay have finally been proven right.

***

“We were the first that ever burst
into that silent sea.”

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)