Russia ready to boost Arctic tourism

The authorities of the newly established national park “Arctic Russia” will develop infrastructure so that you can be one of the tourist to explore the earlier closed Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef Land.


More than 800 tourists visited the two archipelagos between Russia’s mainland and the North Pole this summer. That is just the beginning.

In this interview with BarentsObserver, Director of the national park Russian Arctic, Roman Viktorovich Ershov, tells about development plans. Preservation, science- and research and tourism are the three main directions.

Director of the National Park - Russia Arctic Roman Viktorovich Ershov.
Director of the National Park - Arctic Russia, Roman Ershov, in front of the map of Franz-Josef Land. Photo: Anastasia Sazhenova.

- Roman Viktorovich, the decree on the establishment of the national park was signed a little more than two years ago. What does the national park Russian Arctic look like today? 

- We are still working on the establishment and arrangement of the national park Russian Arctic. The staff has partly been recruited and we are now furnishing and equipping our office which is located in a brand new building in the center of Arkhangelsk. Very soon we will also establish a Visit Centre, a museum, a small exhibition hall and a conference-hall here.

On the territory of the park itself we have started inventory work, including also inspection of the sites and objects left over after the economic and military activities of the past.

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The first field expedition of this year is made up of six people, all of them are personnel of the national park. During the expedition some equipment necessary for the life and work of the people was delivered to the territory of the park. Members of the expedition started to establish a base station of the national park near the Cape Zhelaniya.

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The base station is planned to be further expanded to be suitable for tourists, students, and researchers.  The expedition is also doing some on-site measurements and investigations for delineation and demarcation of the territory of the park, they are involved in current monitoring and territory protection. Unfortunately, the field season on the islands is rather short: from July to September, so the work of the expedition this year is already coming to an end. 

- What is the main challenge for the park management on the present stage of its development?

The main challenge is lack of qualified personnel. We definitely feel shortage of well-trained experienced specialists who are able to work within different activities on the territory. We are talking about high latitudes, so there are not so many experts available who are experienced in working here. We understand that we will have to train recruited personnel ourselves, we are prepared to improve their qualification and increase their competence using our own resources.

We also cooperate with the Northern Arctic Federal University within personnel training. We are considering now a possibility to establish a joint permanent research and study area within the base station of the park. This year students from the University did their internship on the territory of the park, but unfortunately they could not stay there for the whole field season due to the harsh climatic conditions and poorly developed infrastructure. Besides this year we have really had challenges with polar bears – they were too numerous in the close vicinity to the place of people’s accommodation.  So it was decided that the students should continue their internship in the Visit Centre in the city.

Tourist taking photos of walrus on safe distance. Photo: National Park - Russia Arctic

- What is the content of the mid-term plan for the national park development project?

At present we are gathering information for the development of the mid-term plan. Before making the plan it is necessary to do field operations and on-site investigations of the territory. During the winter time we will analyse the received data and will conclude whether the information from the first year is sufficient or we will need another field season to collect more data.

- But the priority areas of activity are probably known already today?

Yes, of course, the main activities are defined by the Federal Law on specially protected areas and the foundation documents of the institution. There are three main activities: area protection, tourism and environmental education, and also research and scientific work. The mid-term plan for the national park development project will be made in accordance with these three key areas.

- What is being done to clean the area of the park from the “consequences” of the economic and military activities of the past years?

The cleaning operations will be designed for 2012-2013 on the basis of the inventory operations which are being performed on the territory nowadays, including also inventory operations on the Franz Josef Land. The cleaning work will be implemented within a big Governmental program. 

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- What are your plans for tourism development on the territory of the park?

We already make tours to the national park together with large tour operators in compliance with the existing Russian legislation. This year the tourist season is practically finished. We have had 11 tours and received more than 800 tourists. 90% of them are foreign tourists. They go through the customs and border control in the nearest check points – either in Murmansk, or Arkhangelsk.

- Do you think it will be possible in the future to establish a check point on the territory of the national park or to arrange the procedure of customs and border control on board a tourist vessel? 

To make this possible we need to introduce serious changes to the Russian legislation. Unfortunately, we have no power to initiate bills, but we do hope that some changes will be made in order to promote tourism development in the area. 

- Are you interested in the development of international cooperation and what type of cooperation is the most relevant?

We already have cooperation with foreign tour operators. Tourist component is very important, not less than a research and scientific component, including also experience exchange with similar specially protected areas. The territory of the Spitsbergen Island is the most relevant for us in this respect. It would be very interesting and useful for both parties to learn more about each other. We are prepared for diversified cooperation. If we talk about joint tourist products, they already exist even this year.  Some vessels after visiting our territory and Murmansk then go further to Spitsbergen. Of course, such Arctic tours are quite expensive. For example, a tour only to the Franz-Josef Land this year cost more than 7-8 thousand USD.

- Do you think it will be possible to make such Arctic tours cheaper and more affordable in the future?

This is actually one of the goals that I set for the institution – to make tourism not only regulated and controlled, but also affordable. For this purpose we need to develop relevant infrastructure which would allow accommodation and servicing of tourists. Thus we will partly reduce very expensive cruise tourism, at the same time tourists will be able to stay longer on the islands and use land-based vehicles and small boats to travel around the national park with tourist purposes.

- What are the financial sources for construction of infrastructural facilities on the territory of the park?

First of all we will receive money from the federal budget, but we are also searching for partners. They could be both private investors and organizations interested in the construction of, say, their own permanent stations and bases on the territory of the park. They can be used for both tourist and educational and research purposes. We consider all possible options.

National park Russian Arctic is located in the northern part of the archipelago Novaya Zemlya, and it also has the territory of the federal wildlife reserve Franz-Josef Land under its jurisdiction. Total area of the park is almost 1.5 mln hectares (15 thousand square km), that is 15 times more than the area of Moscow, equals the area of the Kaliningrad region or half of the area of Belgium. 

Archipelago Franz-Josef Land is the closest one to the North Pole in the eastern hemisphere. The distance from the North Pole is 540 miles (869 km). The archipelago consists of 191 islands, and 85% of their territory is permanently covered with ice.

Cape Fligeli on the Rudolf Island in the Franz-Josef Archipelago is the northernmost island point of Eurasia and the European part of Russia.

Cape Flissingsky on the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago is the easternmost island point of Europe. It was discovered and mapped by Willem Barents in 1696. Barents died not far from this cape.

The territory of the national park is interesting due to its flora and fauna.  Cultural heritage of the park is also unique – here one will find sites and places related to the history of discoveries and explorations in the Russian part of the Arctic.

Around 15 years ago there were numerous Russian polar stations working on the Franz Josef Land. At present they are all abandoned except for one, and the whole archipelago is totally dominated by the wild nature. For many years these wonderful places were closed for travellers because of the military importance. Then the military left the Franz Josef Land and after them there are piles of rubbish on the islands: used oil and lubricants, barrels with fuel, household wastes.