After five days at sea, the ship docked in Ulukhaktok in Northwest Territories, Canada.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek

Apocalypse Tourism? Cruising the Melting Arctic Ocean

Come aboard! Let’s sail the once-impenetrable Northwest Passage.

On Aug. 16, the Crystal Serenity set out from Seward, Alaska, carrying 1,700 passengers and crew, and escorted by a comparatively minuscule, 1,800-ton icebreaker. She circled west and north around the Alaska Peninsula and through the Bering Strait before heading east into the maze of straits and sounds that constitute the Northwest Passage. For centuries, explorers tried to establish a sea route here between Europe and Asia. Many met with ruin. A few stranded sailors famously ate their boots—and each other. When the Crystal Serenity emerged free and clear of the maze on Sept. 5, there were no accounts of scurvy or cannibalism, only tales of bingeing on themed buffets and grumbles from shutterbugs about the Arctic’s monotonous landscape.

Operated by Crystal Cruises, the Serenity became on that day the first passenger liner to successfully ply the Northwest Passage. As climate change melts Arctic sea ice twice as fast as models predicted, more and larger ships have made their way along these fatal shores. In 2013, the Nordic Orion was the first bulk cargo carrier to transit the Passage, hauling a load of coal.

Rates on the Serenity started at around $22,000 per person. For that, passengers were anointed, by Slate, “the world’s worst people”—for venturing into a vulnerable ecosystem in a diesel-burning, 69,000-ton behemoth. Canada’s National Post described the cruise as an “invasion” of indigenous communities. Britain’s Telegraph hinted at Titanic hubris, asking, Is this “the world’s most dangerous cruise”?

As for the Arctic villages the Serenity visited, they were, depending on whom you ask, either overwhelmed or overjoyed by the ship’s hordes of curious, wealthy strangers. The communities staged dances, hawked arts and crafts, and expressed hope that the Crystal Serenity reaches New York safely on Sept. 16. Assuming it does, Crystal Cruises plans to offer the route again next year, departing Anchorage on Aug. 15. Edie Rodriguez, the company’s chief executive officer, says that a few passengers have already rebooked.

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Crystal Cruises passengers on the shuttle to Nome, Alaska, for a visit.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Ventriloquist Mark Merchant and Jose Diego, the bald eagle, chat with cruisers outside one of the ship’s auditoriums.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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With no venue in Ulukhaktok large enough for 1,000 tourists, community members went aboard the Serenity to perform traditional dances in the main theater. They met with their fans afterward.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Poolside as the ship passes Canada’s Smoking Hills, where oil shale cliffs auto-ignite and have burned for centuries.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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For Crystal Cruises’ Northwest Passage historic first, penthouse berths went for $44,000 and up. “It was quite a home run all around,” CEO Rodriguez says.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Calculating prices in the Hubert jewelry shop, one of the stores on board.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Cruise ship passengers look at local artifacts for sale at a bar on their one-day visit to Nome.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Captain Birger J. Vorland leads the Crystal Serenity on the first cruise-ship voyage from Alaska to New York through the once impossibly dangerous Northwest Passage.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Conrad Field, a biologist from Homer, Alaska, and a passenger look for wildlife on deck with oversize binoculars.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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An Ulukhaktok elder welcoming committee.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Because the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi seas freeze, there are few docks or wharves even where there are settlements. Visitors must be prepared for “wet landings” by Zodiac.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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Sitting roughly 120 miles from the top of the world.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek
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The Crystal Serenity arrives in Ulukhaktok.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg Businessweek

Corrects the spelling of the captain’s name.