08/15/2014 09:58 EDT | Updated 10/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Crystal Serenity to become 1st luxury ship to tackle Northwest Passage

An American cruise ship company is looking to take advantage of shrinking Arctic sea ice.

If all goes as planned, the Crystal Serenity will become the first large “luxury” cruise ship to sail all the way through the Northwest Passage in August 2016.

The 32-day cruise will start in Seward, Alaska, and make stops in Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., and Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet in Nunavut before moving on to Greenland. The cruise will end in New York City.

With 14 decks, a casino, a library and a capacity for more than 1,000 people, the ship will be unlike anything that has ever plied these waters. With two years to go until the voyage begins, 90 per cent of tickets have been booked at a cost of $20,000 to $120,000.

The first commercial bulk carrier to make the transit did so just last year, in waters previously limited to icebreakers, ice-strengthened expedition vessels and private yachts.

"In comparison to cruise ships that are out there, we are considered a mid-sized ship,” says Thomas Mazloum, executive vice-president of Crystal Cruises. “We're not a large or mega ship necessarily any more, at all. But in comparison to a small expedition vessel that carries 100 people, of course we are a larger vessel."

Greg MacGarva, vice-president of marine operations for the company, says the ship is not an icebreaker, but the company is taking safety concerns seriously.

"What we've looked at is 85 to 90 per cent open water in that area at the time. And certainly Crystal Serenity will be doing its best to be an ice avoider, which really we don't think will be terribly difficult."

​MacGarva also says the cruise ship will be outfitted with ice searchlights and a forward-looking sonar that will help spot underwater obstacles that may not be charted. They’re working with the Canadian Ice Service to get ice predictions, and have built in several contingency days to the trip in case they need to wait for conditions to improve.

The cruise ship also plans to travel with an escort vessel.

"Our intention is that the escort vessel will be a capable icebreaking vessel," MacGarva says.

According to the Canadian Coast Guard, between three and six cruise ships have transited all or part of the Northwest Passage each year since 2009. For 2014, eight trips were planned.

Communities consulted

There will be more people on board the Crystal Serenity than in some of the communities they’ll glide by.

Tim Soper, a founding partner of EYOS Expeditions, which is organizing the cruise, says he went to the communities and asked if they would be open to having visits by boat passengers.

Soper says that overall, he has received positive reaction.

"They've had expedition ships visit, and sadly many of the expedition ships turn up and just stroll around town without any proper planning or contributions with the community."

Soper says no more than 250 people will be on shore at any one time.

"There's an anticipation that most of the people on board the voyage would want to visit these communities, but the plan is to stagger their time in the communities, so there's never an unmanageable number ashore at any one time."

The kind of tourism they actually want?

Ross Klein, a self-described “cruise junkie” and professor with the School of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland, is one of many experts who worries that cruise ships will damage the Arctic environment and scare off marine life.

He says that’s something the Inuit who live there should think carefully about.

"If this is successful, they can anticipate more ships jumping onto the bandwagon and they will be dealing with more ships and perhaps larger ships,” Klein says.

“Then there has to be some careful thinking in terms of whether this is the kind of tourism that they actually want."

Arctic ‘unpredictable’

The people behind the luxury cruise admit that the Arctic is a challenging region for travel.

"Anyone that's worked in the Arctic or polar regions in general knows that nothing is predictable," Soper says.

Mazloum says the company has already spent two years preparing for the trip.

"Because it's not like a destination that we were initially too familiar with. We obviously had to do a lot of ground work whether it's on the safety side, whether it's facilities, whether it's what our customers are interested in."