From the Covid-19 travel gridlock to a visitor record winter: Problematising the rebound of luxury tourism development in the Arctic from a moral economy perspective

Text and photo: Dorothee Bohn

The sign in front of a luxury-branded hotel tells local people who ski or exercise on the public cross-country skiing/outdoor recreation trail, which is located beside the tourist facility, that “you will soon arrive at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel’s accommodation area. Please move silently so that our guests can enjoy a pleasant moment of rest”. Source: Author.

The sign in front of a luxury-branded hotel tells local people who ski or exercise on the public cross-country skiing/outdoor recreation trail, which is located beside the tourist facility, that “you will soon arrive at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel’s accommodation area. Please move silently so that our guests can enjoy a pleasant moment of rest”.

Covid-19 hit the global tourism industry like no other previous crisis. In order to curb the spread of the virus, nation states closed their borders and restricted the mobility of citizens as well as leisure travelers. During 2020 and 2021, international tourist arrivals dropped around 70 percent and the export revenue of the sector declined about 60 percent compared to 2019 (UNWTO, n.d.). In 2022, when mobility restrictions were lifted, tourism recovered quickly. For instance, the winter season 2022/23 in Lapland is expected to break all pre-Covid-19 inbound visitation records and more international direct flight connections are currently available to the region than ever before (Talvensaari, 2022). Tourists are happy to be able to travel again and the local media expects an economic boost for northern Finland from this “super winter” (Tolppi, 2022).

Is this rebound of international ‘business as usual’ tourism an occurrence that should be celebrated unequivocally? A quick glance at destination management organizations’ websites assures us that Arctic tourism is sustainable and a responsible traveler can consume in good conscience. Yet, in the introduction to the recently published book Critical Studies of the Arctic, Unravelling the North, Marjo Lindroth et al. (2022) underscore that critical research revolves also around the problematization of taken for granted issues and practices that seem to offer ‘the’ truth. Tourism development in peripheries falls oftentimes into this category of largely undisputed social facts due the sector’s promise of jobs and contributions to economic growth. Hence, I discuss the growth of high-value/low volume luxury tourist enclaves, which represent a particular salient post-Covid 19 tourism pathway in the European Arctic, from the vantage point of moral (political) economy. This form of tourism is often touted as a more sustainable and economically viable development option for remote areas than conventional travel and hospitality (e.g. Työ- ja elinkeinoministeriö, 2022) and received recently considerable amounts of public funding.

Tourism in the Arctic

During the past 20 years, tourism has been growing considerably in the Arctic, albeit characterized by a strong concentration in hotspots (Runge et al., 2020). Some places became popular destinations due to regional planning (for instance in Finnish Lapland) others because of their gateway position to tourist attractions. Tourism plays also an increasing role within regional development strategies, particularly as a means to achieve growth-based but sustainable development. Greenland represents a vivid example. High hopes are placed into tourism as an economic opportunity that can support the island’s aspired independence from Denmark (Bjørst & Ren, 2015).

The main pull factor for visiting the Arctic is the region’s instagramable nature. Tourism firms offer a wide range of soft nature-based activities, such as dogsledding, snowmobile trips, aurora hunting tours, wildlife watching, cruise expeditions, and reindeer farm visits (Rantala et al., 2018). Extreme adventure tourism is far smaller segment. However, international Arctic tourism is often highly energy and emission intensive due to long flight routes and fossil fuel-based activities. Jamie D’Souza and colleagues (2021) found that for some Arctic tourist activities, such as polar bear viewing, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have grown signifyingly over the past decade. Even though the disastrous risks of environmental change are well recognized within the travel sector, the common policy response is to promote efficiency gains through technological solutions in line with the green growth paradigm (Scott & Gössling, 2022). Arctic destinations engage therefore frequently in zero carbon initiatives and offsetting. Yet, Alix Varnajot and Jarkko Saarinen (2022) argue that the desire of tourists to experience the Arctic as a cold and snowy wilderness actually accelerates the thawing of its icescapes.

The rise of luxury enclaves in the Arctic: postsocial spaces surrounded by exclusive nature

While voyages to the high Arctic have always been an expensive and exclusive undertaking, the tourism sector in the European high north increasingly amends mass-standardized and low service quality tourism, which is affordable for the broader society, with low volume/ high value products for affluent travelers. This trend can be observed around the world. For instance, in the Dutch province Zeeland, many ordinary camping grounds and public beaches were transformed by real estate developers into high-end tourist facilities by the sea. These luxury design enclaves are surrounded by conservation areas. In addition to wildlife protection, the purpose of these ‘artificial’ nature areas is to generate revenues by offering the rich an eye-pleasing and relaxing retreat from hectic city life. Such exclusive tourist enclaves are also on the rise in the European Arctic (see https://yle.fi/a/74-20004434).

Characteristic for these facilities is an architectural style that combines vast glass fronts, natural building materials, and Nordic minimalism with (im)material local culture. This signature design differentiates the enclave from its surrounding local context but renders it familiar to its global target audience (see Saarinen, 2001). Indeed, glass elements (curtain walls) and expensive minimalist interior design are the embodied hallmarks of power and wealth in contemporary capitalism (Simpson, 2013). Affluent international tourists enjoy a comfortable stay in this environment coupled with exquisite cuisine and a wide range of soft nature-based activities. Neither is there the need to leave these sheltered micro-destinations and explore the surrounding region independently nor to meet other people except for the service staff. Mattew Soules (2021) calls such dwellings therefore postsocial spaces. Exclusive enclaves are not only sheltering the rich from the rest of the society through a distinctive architecture of isolation but the built environment serves also as a depository for wealth and an investment asset. Soules (2021) writes that “the avoidance of social contamination effectively abstracts domestic space and removes it from collective entanglements, ultimately facilitating its postsocial role -that of a tradeable financial asset”.

The purposeful seclusiveness of luxury resorts, which promises the rich a care-free time out of sight of regular folks, stands in stark contrast to the Nordic conception of access to land and the traditional egalitarian approach to society. The everyman’s rights grant all people the freedom to roam on public as well as on private lands and domestic tourism used to be accessible for all social classes (see Anttila, 2014). Moreover, these high-end enclaves oftentimes privatize scenic spots that were once public lands (e.g. Ávila-García & Sánchez, 2012). Privacy and landscape picturesqueness are imbued in the marketing messages of the Arctic enclaves with personal wellbeing. The clean and unspoiled nature surrounding the tourist accommodation provides exclusive physical and mental health benefits. As in the case of the Netherlands, nature becomes a luxury object itself in a world that is battered by displacement, inequality, and the grave effects of accelerating climate change.

The deserving rich and the undeserving poor?

The naturalized understanding that the rich deserve to holiday in such places while the poor are denied access is problematic in many respects. At the heart of this belief lies neoliberal rationality, which holds that the individual alone is the architect of their own fortune. Structural aspects of inequality and unjust distribution are outweighed by a person’s responsibility for their self-valorization in a competitive global market (Chandler & Reid, 2016). Instead of social solidarity, neoliberal reasoning furthers the view that people who fail to succeed financially are to blame for their own situation and do not merit the help of others (Dardot & Laval, 2013). Hence, the rich occupy not only an economically superior position but also a moral one even though much of their wealth is not self-earned through hard and honest work but obtained though inheritance and investments (Piketty, 2014).

Furthermore, wealthy people’s lifestyles and vacation habits generate generally more GHG emissions than those of middle- or low-income groups (Gore, 2020). Arctic luxury tourism itself has a comparatively large ecological footprint. Tourism firms usually justify these emission intensive pleasure trips for the rich by stressing their function as environmental ambassadors. Do wealthy people who jet set around the world really care? How persuasive is their ambassadorship? Do a few Instagram posts profoundly impact on global climate policy? Does their consumption convince other people to refrain from consumption? Andrew Sayer’s (2015) reply to such questions is a categorical no. He asserts that the “‘rich’ are incompatible with a sustainable future” and that we simply can’t afford them in the light of accelerating climate collapse (Morgan, 2022, p. 124). Sayer’s (2015) proposition is not an ad hominem argument but a systemic critique. Current neoliberal capitalism, predicated upon endless economic growth, warrants urgent reform since absolute decoupling through technological innovation remains a distant goal (Hickel & Kallis, 2020). The gatekeepers for profound political and socio-economic transformations are the rich; yet their inertia seems to outweigh their willingness for change (Sayer, 2015).

Taking stock from a moral economy perspective

Scholars of moral economy remind us that there is nothing natural about this neoliberal growth-based economy where profits are put before people (Morgan, 2022). Moral economy is a field that interrogates the value underpinning of the economy, how institutions reproduce economic organization, and how an economy, which stays within planetary boundaries and facilitates equal wealth distribution, should look like (Sayer, 2007). This field also sheds light on “what kind of “people” and “society” particular economic activities tend to create” (Sejersen, 2022, p. 164). From this vantage point, exclusive luxury tourism is not just frivolous and unjust, but also a short-sighted development strategy. Of course, high-end tourism generates revenues that contribute to regional growth but its long-term ecological impacts that affect the whole globe should not be ignored. Another aspect of particularly nature-focused luxury tourism is that environmental commons are enshrined for the consumption and capital accumulation of a wealthy minority. The rich can afford to live in a parallel fairytale world, far away from precarity and ecological crises. ‘Clean nature’, which is the major attraction factor of luxury tourism in the Arctic, turns from a common good into an exchange value asset. Instead of working hard towards securing a habitable nature for everyone, it seems that the last unspoiled spots on earth become privatized at an increasing pace while socio-economic sustainability transformations advance at an incremental pace at best. Yet, the conditionality of access to land and high-quality services upon financial power is largely normalized. Even deaths due to environmental pollution and climate change seem to be acceptable collateral damage for economic growth (see Hall, 2022). For instance, Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year old underprivileged girl from London, died in February 2013 of her asthma amplified by exposure to severe air pollution (Laville, 2020). She was not given the possibility to live or holiday in a place with clean air.

From a normative perspective, it is time to rethink the accumulation of luxury tourism and its instrumental but naturalized role in alienating people from their lands. We should not welcome the post-Covid-19 rebound of a tourism product that thrives on inequality, short-sighted investments, and pleasure for a minority that causes costs for the majority. Indeed, tourism researchers with interest in post-growth alternatives to socio-economic organization emphasize that resource-intensive forms of luxury travel require termination if we aspire equality and an economy that operates within planetary boundaries (e.g. Fletcher et al., 2021). Furthermore, we should repoliticize tourism development along with the economy and ask more questions regarding who gets what, why, and how. In Sayer’s (2007) approach to moral economy, social sciences have a role to play not only in critically questioning political economic order but also in creating alternatives. Such a task requires, first and foremost, that we (collectively) break free from our own neoliberal subjectivity and leave its institutional baggage behind.

Dorothee Bohn is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, Umeå, Sweden. Her thesis examines Arctic tourism development and governance from a political economy perspective. Dorothee is also interested in finance geographies and the manifold nature-society relations in peripheries.

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