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Northerners consider new cruise ship rules after giant vessel’s voyage

People preparing to take a polar plunge in the Bering Sea in front of the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, which anchored just outside Nome, Alaska on Aug. 21, 2016.

Mark Thiessen/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The successful voyage of a mammoth cruise ship through the Northwest Passage has left Arctic officials, industry leaders and local people considering new regulations to govern future transits.

The Nunavut government is already considering rules to reduce the community impact of giant ships such as the Crystal Serenity, which docked in New York on Friday with 1,700 passengers and crew.

"The [territory] is considering new marine tourism regulations that would mitigate some of the impacts of larger ships like the Crystal Serenity," said Bernie MacIsaac of Nunavut's Department of Economic Development.

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The new rules would limit the number of passengers that would visit a community at any one time. The regulations would also require cruise operators to distribute guidelines to their clients and require the companies to detail the economic benefits they generate.

Nobody wants the cruise ships to stop. But controls on shore landings would be welcomed by people like Vicki Aitoak, who managed Cambridge Bay's response to the Crystal Serenity's visit.

Ms. Aitoak said the Serenity's visit went well and left about $110,000 in the community – a significant boost for a town of 1,500. But the cruise ship season is short and towns see a lot of them. The Serenity pulled in the day after another ship pulled out.

"A size limit and a number should be included," Ms. Aitoak said. "We cannot do a 1,000-passenger ship for three days in a row." Locals burn out, she said.

"There just aren't that many people here. We're not going to fly in drum dancers."

Daniel Skjeldam, head of the Norway-based Hurtigruten cruise line, is calling for size limits and strict regulations on shore visits similar to those in effect for Antarctica, where ships are limited to 500 passengers.

"This has to do with safety – search and rescue – but also to do with the small communities that you come in to.

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"We are concerned about the impact they have on these villages."

Many Inuit want to see tighter controls on all boat traffic in the North, said Okalik Eegeesiak of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international Inuit group. For hamlets that don't have wharfs or docks, it's partly a safety issue, she said.

"We are very concerned about the possible worst-case scenario, where the communities are not equipped to handle any emergency."

Crystal Cruises took precautions for the voyage of the Serenity.

The ship travelled with its own icebreaker and helicopter. It burned low-sulphur fuel and disposed of no garbage at sea.

The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, whose members carry just over the half the passengers into the Canadian Arctic, has set guidelines on the ratio of guides to guests and the number of people that can congregate at any one site.

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"It will be challenging for larger vessels to meet some of the requirements in our guidelines," said spokeswoman Frigg Jorgensen.

Crystal Cruises spokeswoman Molly Morgan said the company began planning for the trip three years ago.

"Crystal team members made multiple trips to the region to collaborate with the local communities and ensure that, as a company, we were well educated on the culture, history and ecosystem that makes up this delicate region."

Skjeldam said he's already brought the issue before the Arctic Council, the group of eight countries that ring the Arctic Circle. He said the industry needs to get together to ensure Arctic cruises remain sustainable as ships increase in size – before someone else does it for them.

"We'd rather develop this together and be ahead of time rather than see something coming because we're not doing the right thing."

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