Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Destination North Pole? Start From Here

ST. PETERSBURG -- Former Soviet scientists and adventurers have found a new way to make up for the elimination of government subsidies in the Arctic: Take tourists to the North and South Poles.

For $6, 000, two Russia-based agencies are already ferrying foreign tourists to the North Pole by helicopter. Included in the eight to 10 day trip is a genuine North Pole certificate you can hang on the wall of your study.

"We've had photographers, lawyers, dentists -- all kinds of people participate", said Christian Marliave, head of the Parallele travel agency which promotes the North Pole tours abroad. "After all, this is not traveling by dogsled. This is a pretty luxurious way to go", he said by telephone from Paris.

Last year, about 40 foreign tourists made the trip to the North Pole by the Russian route. Twenty went with the St. Petersburg-based Vicaar agency, and another 20 with the Vark agency, based in the far northern Russian port city of Dikson.

This year, Vicaar and Vark say they have booked another 60 foreign tourists to the North Pole. Both agencies are departing next month with tourist groups.

At the other end of the earth, a Russian oceanographer is setting up an agency to carry tourists from Cape Town, South Africa, to Antarctica.

The recent appearance of Russian-backed, commercial polar explorations at both ends of the planet is not a coincidence.

Especially in the Arctic, the Soviet Union maintained an expensive network of military and scientific outposts which were closed to foreigners until 1991. Included was an enormous fleet of airplanes, helicopters, refueling stations, scientists and experienced pilots.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and a serious budget crunch, polar explorers are seeking ways to prevent disintegration of the network.

"For 60 years, Russian scientists have been doing good science up there", said Marliave, who handled logistics for the 1991 Trans-Antarctic expedition. "The whole world will lose if this work is abandoned. It's unfortunate, but nobody can think of another way to bring in money besides promoting tourism".

The Vicaar agency was founded two years ago as an attempt to save the St. Petersburg Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic after it ran out of money and was forced to close part of its exhibition, leasing the space to a Swiss company.

"Keeping the museum together is our main concern", said Marliave.

"Even if 1, 000 people wanted to go, we wouldn't take them. We don't intend to build a hotel in Franz Josef Land", the far northern Russian archipelago.

Vicaar pays the salaries of the museum's 24 employees and has managed to keep its doors open to the public.

"We wanted to keep all this together in one place", said Victor Serov, who headed Vicaar's tourist expedition last year to the North Pole. "So far, we've succeeded. But with regard to simply earning money, we haven't been too successful".

Vladimir Baranov, a veteran Arctic explorer who founded the Vicaar agency, told a similar story. "Mostly, we operate on enthusiasm".

A typical North Pole tour lasts a little more than a week. All travel in the area is by helicopter. Although the pole is the ultimate destination, the trip includes tours of coastal northern Russia, Franz Josef Land and Severnaya Zemlya. The extra stops are added to improve the chances that at least one day of adequate weather will appear over the pole.

The final assault on the pole is launched in three helicopters leaving from either Franz Josef Land or Severnaya Zemlya. The round trip takes about 20 hours, counting four refueling stops.

In the end, the adventurous tourist gets to stand on the geographical North Pole for about one hour.

"Two years ago, nobody could go to Russia's Arctic north, yet these are some of the most beautiful places on earth", said Baranov. "We're pleased to be opening up this part of the world".