Arctic and Antarctic travel has been heating up for some time in China, and particularly for those who wish to visit off-the-beaten-track destinations as more and more Chinese travelers venture to a greater variety of destinations around the world. Numerous destinations and travel businesses have responded to this trend, among these, Alaska, Finland, Chinese online travel agency (OTA) Fliggy, and Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten. Russia, the largest Arctic country, is now a key target for Chinese ambitions in the region—which range from tourism to geopolitics.
So far, the biggest winners of China’s newfound ambitions and interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions are cruise operators and Chinese travel agencies—many of them specialized in expedition travel. As far as destinations go, it’s more of a mixed bag. While Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States all count as Arctic stakeholders, few of them actively refer to themselves as Arctic destinations in travel marketing—and even less in discussions about China. Finland is perhaps the biggest exception and has been hailed in Chinese state media for elaborate collaborative initiatives with China in the Arctic region, explicitly framed as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Finland’s tourism industry also ranks as a major beneficiary of Chinese travel, and particularly in Finland’s north.
China envisions a “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic with China as a key stakeholder
While tourism is certainly part of the plan, Chinese geopolitical ambitions are central to all of the country’s efforts in the region. China, which lacks any claims to the Arctic region, has vested interests in the region from both a security and a trade standpoint. Earlier this year, the Chinese government issued its first Arctic policy whitepaper in which it refers to itself as a “near-Arctic state,” defined as an “important stakeholder.” A significant stream of tourists to the region would certainly help give credence to that claim, and Chinese tourists’ economic impact on Arctic regions could certainly sweeten any deal with actual Arctic stakeholders as well.
Growing skepticism over what China really wants from its polar ambitions among Canada, the European Union, and the United States plays into the hands of Russia.
Niklas Granholm of Sweden’s Defense Research Agency was quoted in the Nikkei Asian Review saying, “China’s increasing activity in the Arctic has been met with concern that it may lead to a significant redrawing of the region’s geopolitical map.”
China’s courting of Russia could mean significant benefits for Russia in terms of tourism and investments
The expected future importance of the Arctic region—both in terms of trade and natural resources—could propel Russia into a position of geopolitical relevance it arguably hasn’t enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s also the obvious partner in the region for China.
The benefits could be plentiful as well. China has shown few qualms about substantial investments in third countries where it sees future strategic relevance. It has shown even fewer qualms about using its tourists as both the carrot and the stick in foreign policy.
For Russia, this could mean a substantial boost in high-value Chinese tourism to its underserved north as well as substantial investments in both tourism infrastructure and other infrastructure in the region. What it needs to offer China in return is perhaps less clear, but China only has so many options of partners in the Arctic region—leaving Russia with plenty of leverage.
“China does not have Arctic territories, and thus this kind of tourism is of special interest for China—both from the point of view of studies, and from the point of view of new impressions, of new tourism products,” said the Deputy Head of the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism, Nikolai Korolev, according to Russian news agency TASS.
However, as often is the case with Chinese tourism, there’s likely more than meets the eye with China’s Arctic tourism ambitions in Russia. Of course, unlike a country like Sri Lanka, Russia may have a lot more leverage—and experience—in navigating the foreign policy goals of a foreign power.