Will giant cruise ships destroy the wonders that their passengers love so much?

A special shock is the shooting of a polar bear. Their magnificence, their appearance, their charm, their ferocity, their Vulnerability, their anthropomorphism – all together make the death of one man, in the hands of tour guides for a cruise ship, worldwide news.

The internet hummed with denunciation. It is hard to think of another creature, even one more endangered, whose loss would cause so much reaction.

Then there is a second shock, with the accompanying realisation that cruises to fragile wildernesses are on the rise. Eighteen ships were due to dock last week in the small port of Longyearbyen, the main town of Svalbard, the archipelago where the bear was shot. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, the company whose ship MS Bremen was involved in the incident, is launching another two next year, the Hanseatic Nature and the Hanseatic Inspiration, to exploit the growing Arctic market.

These will take around 200 passengers each, a number that already makes an “expedition”, as they call it, into a mass-produced experience. In 2016, to the dismay of environmentalists, the 1,000-passenger Crystal Serenity became the first cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage. Its owner, Crystal Cruises, is planning to launch a “polar-class megayacht” next year.

This feels wrong. It is contradictory to thrust these floating towns, with the pollution and disruption they entail, into places whose beauty is in their pristine solitude. It adds a new front to the war that has been fought in Venice for years over the floating, multistorey hotels that impose themselves on the very views that attracted them to the city in the first place. As the global cruising business grew by 4% in 2017, and by 20% in the five years before that, such struggles will only intensify, and in more locations.

At a personal level, the news of the shooting gave me pause. I had recently returned from Svalbard, including the Sjuøyane islands where the incident took place, as part of a residency of artists and writers aboard the tall ship Antigua. We thought ourselves good people, concerned about the environment, uneasy about the air miles that had got us there, hoping that our visit could contribute in some modest way to our understanding of the Arctic. We voyaged under sail when possible, rather than with the diesel engine, and gathered washed-up rubbish from the beaches as we went, as you are encouraged to do.

There were 29 of us, rather than the hundreds or thousands who might travel in a cruise ship. It is hard to imagine anyone who could love the Arctic environment more than our guides or who would less want to kill a bear. But they were armed with rifles as a last resort, in accordance with the law. In principle, they could have been forced to use them, in which case they would have faced denunciation across the internet as murderers. If we gave ourselves the illumination of seeing glaciers and wildlife, moreover, why shouldn’t the paying punters of Hapag-Lloyd and other cruise lines have it too?

A popular online view was articulated by Ricky Gervais’s tweet: “‘Let’s get too close to a polar bear in its natural environment and then kill it if it gets too close.’ Morons.” Never mind the reports that the guides were acting in self-defence, that they were not seeking an encounter with the animal, that it surprised them while they were carrying out a routine check of a landing site. Humans, goes the argument, have no business encroaching on its habitat.

The problem with this view is that bears can be found anywhere in Svalbard, also Greenland and northern Canada, and they can appear in and around towns and settlements as well as on uninhabited beaches. Short of complete evacuation of all these places, some interaction of human and animal will happen. So it’s more a matter of what kind of interaction is appropriate rather than whether it should happen at all.

It’s a question of kind and degree. Common sense says that there has to be some kind of limit, before ships are jostling round the glaciers like tourists in front of the Mona Lisa. In Venice, last autumn, it was finally announced that large cruise ships would have to moor further from the city, although there is a three-year delay to implementing these laws. So something can be done – the Arctic nations need to learn from La Serenissima and act before it is too late.

Giant cruise ships look to me like misery machines. They don’t make residents happy in the places they visit. They don’t make their crews happy, if you are to believe the recurring allegations of mistreatment of staff. As for the passengers, although I am sure plenty of satisfied customers will tell me otherwise, there seems to be so little engagement with the wonders they come to visit that they might as well be seeing them on a screen.

They crystallise a mentality, that art and nature are things to be grabbed, often with giant cameras. A promotional shot for one of Hapag-Lloyd’s Antarctic cruises, in which a firing squad of tourists, standing in a Zodiac inflatable boat, point their lenses at penguins, sums this up – why don’t they just pause to look at the damn birds? Last week’s other wildlife news, that visitors to Skomer Island in Wales are trampling puffins to death in their eagerness to photograph them, speaks of the same mentality. You kill the thing you purport to love.

We’re all susceptible to this acquisitive mentality, myself and my fellow high-minded travellers included. In our case, the insights of the guides and crew helped us actually to look at what was around us; the same will be true of at least some of the other cruises around the Arctic. It would be nice to think that tourism could serve our better natures rather than our worst.

It might be hoped that if ordinary tourists have contact with the Arctic they may contribute, in their home countries, to the spread of understanding of this essential place. But only if the setup of the tours allows understanding to take place. How anyone might legislate to encourage thoughtful cruises and discourage dumb ones is not obvious. It would be nice but unfeasible to give preference to camera-free trips. It would be a good start to limit the size and number of the cruise ships.