The Arctic and the Antarctic, never far from the media spotlight whatever the time of year, both surpassed themselves in generating headlines over the 2013-14 festive season. Two particular stories my Arctic Encounters colleagues and I have been tracking—both loosely connected to Russia—are those concerning the so-called ‘Arctic 30’ and, more recently, the tragicomic events surrounding the chartered Russian icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy, which chose Christmas Day of all days to broadcast a distress message after becoming locked in thick coastal Antarctic ice.
There’s ostensibly little in common between the stories, which involve different players—an international collection of Greenpeace activists in the first case, a mixed band of scientists, tourists, journalists and crewmen in the second—whose highly publicised trials and tribulations, while broadcast globally, have taken place at opposite ends of the world. A closer look, though, suggests a number of interesting avenues of comparison: for example, the stories raise similar if non-identical questions about the relationship between tourism and activism in spectacular Polar settings further illuminated by attention-grabbing narratives of natural destruction in the twin contexts of regional mineral exploitation and local/global climate change.
One question revolves around the extent to which a tourist has the potential to become an activist. There’s already a fair amount of literature on this in tourism studies, e.g. in arguments surrounding such niche phenomena as ‘alternative tourism’ and ‘solidarity tourism’ (Fennell 2006; Mowforth and Munt, 2008; Smith and Eadington 1992; Wearing 2009); while Felicia Gobba Shinnamon has recently suggested the category of ‘activist tourism’ to describe the kind of tourism that ‘seeks to create opportunities for education, cultural exchange with local people, cross-cultural dialog regarding justice issues, and stimulate meaningful activism among tour participants’ (Shinnamon 2013). (Liberal intentions notwithstanding, I’m not sure that even she would go so far as to include such brazenly opportunistic tour operators as ‘Adventure Activist’, whose web page lists the company as a specialist in organising ‘extreme vacations’, at correspondingly extreme expense, for those who ‘wake up [one day] with a [burning] desire to do more for the world and themselves’.)
A more unsettling question to consider is the extent to which activists are tourists. Take Greenpeace, for instance. The most indefatigably visible of all global environmental NGOs (Weyler 2004), Greenpeace currently has over two thousand staff and ten thousand volunteers who, between them, conduct campaigns in over forty countries worldwide. Many of these workers are locally based, but others travel widely, and the organisation’s ocean-going ships—which include the retooled icebreaker Arctic Sunrise—have long been an integral part of its carefully branded direct-action campaigns. These ships are manned by both professionals and volunteers who, should these latter’s qualifications be right, are invited to apply for ‘three-month tours of duty coupled with exciting campaigns’ (Greenpeace website)––probably not most people’s idea of tourism, but tourism, laced with the promise of activist adventure, nonetheless.
This brings me back to the exploits of the ‘Arctic 30’. As just about everyone now knows, the ‘30’—or at least the 26 assorted foreigners among them—were released shortly before Christmas as part of a Putin-inspired (not to mention shamelessly PR-motivated) mass amnesty, having spent the previous couple of months languishing in various Russian jails. Part of the Arctic Sunrise crew, they had been charged with leading a trademark Greenpeace direct-action protest against oil drilling in the Arctic. (Their specific target was a drilling rig belonging to the Russian government-owned gas company, Gazprom.) This action, initially interpreted by the Russian government as ‘piracy’, was later strategically downgraded to ‘hooliganism’—a semantic shift that would cause much merriment, without necessarily taking away from the seriousness of the incarceration or the media-fuelled moral outrage that surrounded it, in the British press.
Would it be adding insult to injury to call the ‘30’, who were generally accorded a hero’s welcome on returning to their respective home countries, ‘tourists’? Maybe it would, but Greenpeace activism is still often tourism of a kind, with the moral ambivalence that is written into protest spectacle and performance—a point well made by the cultural critic Baz Kershaw, who defines ‘eco-activism’ as a particular mode of performance the visual and physical characteristics of which can be read through theatrical codes (Kershaw 2007).
Things are muddied still further when consciousness-raising expeditions include card-carrying tourists in their party. Such was the case late last year when the ‘Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-14’ chartered the Russian icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy—which had previously been used for similar mixed-activity ventures—with the dual purpose of celebrating the centenary of Anglo-Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s Polar exploits and accumulating further evidence of the deleterious effects on the Antarctic ice sheet of accelerated climate change. 74 people went along, among them more or less equal numbers of crew, tourists and climate scientists (Basu 2013).
Almost as if on cue, things began to go wrong, with the ship eventually being held fast by coastal ice and the scientific aims of the expedition largely foundering. One of four journalists on board, the effervescent Guardian columnist Alok Jha would go on to follow the unfolding events assiduously, further milking the already-well-served British public need for extreme adventure stories over Christmas, especially those which—like Scott’s but unlike Mawson’s—were seemingly doomed from the start (Jha 2013; see also Spufford 2003).
While Jha’s latest instalments have succeeded, again seemingly on cue, in turning the standard Polar shipwreck motif into an equally conventional rescue narrative (Jha 2014), this New Year cheer has not been matched in the blogosphere, where opportunities have predictably not been lost to crow about the ironies of an ice-bound expedition aiming to chart the accelerating effects of global warming on rapidly receding pack ice (Watts 2014).
Very few of the criticisms really stick, not least because they tend to disown the scientific credentials for global warming, which rely on complex sets of variables not well attuned to media sound bites, whether played in a major key (planetary ‘eco-apocalypse’) or a minor one (individual climate scientists as ‘frauds’). Still, it does seem necessary to point out that, in this as in other Polar-oriented climate-change scenarios, science and tourism are by no means mutually exclusive, which arguably goes as much for those following the action—virtual tourists—as for those scientists whose work depends on field research at a number of touristically imagined, if not actually tourist-frequented, sites. And it also seems necessary to suggest that the goals of activism in such contexts are never likely to be far from those of tourism; indeed, it might well be said that in today’s increasingly globalised world, activists are often necessarily tourists, their commitment to raising the consciousness of others matched by their enthusiasm in performing the spectacle of themselves.
Adventure Activist: Home: Where Adventure and Activism Meet, http://www.adventureactivist.com, accessed 5/1/2014.
Basu, Tanya (2013) ‘Who’s on that Russian ship stuck on Antarctic ice? And why?’ National Geographic Daily News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131226-russian-ship-stuck-ice-mawson-trek-antarctica/, accessed 5/1/2014/
Fennell, David (2006). Tourism Ethics, Bristol: Channel View Publications.
Greenpeace: http://www.greenpeace.org/, accessed 5/1/2014.
Jha, Alok (2013) ‘Antarctic expedition: still icebound––what happens next is anyone’s guess’, http://www.theguardian.com/world/antarctica-live/2013/dec/29/antarctica-expedition-ice-wait-rescue, accessed 5/1/2014.
—————- (2014) ‘Antarctica rescue: free at last!’ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/02/antarctic-rescue-shokalskiy-free, accessed 5/1/2014.
Kershaw, Baz (2009)  Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mowforth, Martin and Ian Munt (2008) Tourism and Sustainability Development, Globalisation and New Tourism in the Third World, London: Routledge.
Shinnamon, Felicia Gobba (2013) ‘Activist tourism: perceptions of ecotourism and sustainability in Costa Rica’, http://udini.proquest.com/view/activist-tourism-perceptions-of-goid, accessed 5/1/2014.
Smith, Valene L. and William R. Eadington, eds. (1992) Tourism Alternatives: Potentials and Problems in the Development of Tourism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Spufford, Francis (2003) I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, London: Faber & Faber.
Watts, Anthony (2014) ‘The case of the Akademik Shokalskiy getting stuck in Antarctica’, http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/01/02/the-cause-of-the-akademik-shokalskiy-getting-stuck-in-antarctica-sigtseeing-mishaps-and-dawdling-by-the-passengers-getting-back-on-ship/, accessed 5/1/2014.
Wearing, Stephen (2009) The nature of ecotourism: the place of self, identity and communities as interacting elements of alternative tourism, LAP: Lambert Academic Publishing.
Weyler, Rex (2004) Greenpeace: The Inside Story: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World, New York/Basingstoke: Rodale International Ltd.