It appears that in the race to develop a viable commercial route through the increasingly-ice-free Arctic Ocean, the Northeast Passage - along the northern coast of Siberia and through the Bering Strait - has pulled ahead of the Northwest Passage. Here's a story to that effect from the Associated Press (11 September 2009):
"The merchant ships MV Beluga Fraternity and MV Beluga Foresight arrived this week in Yamburg, Siberia, their owner Beluga Shipping GmbH said Friday. They traveled from Ulsan, South Korea, in late July to Siberia by way of the Northeast Passage, a sea lane that, in years past, was avoided because of its heavy ice floes."
The two 12,000-ton ships were carrying cargo for a Russian power plant and construction parts to Rotterdam, their final destination. They will, once they complete their voyage, become the first Western European commercial ships successfully to navigate the Northeast Passage from East Asia. While it is only ice-free for part of the year now, the Arctic shortcut is potentially a profitable trade route because it is 3,500 miles shorter than the lower-latitude route through the Suez Canal, saving both time and fuel. Explorers who attempted to traverse the Northeast Passage in colder times, like Henry Hudson, would probably feel vindicated. (Either that, or envious of the Russian nuclear icebreakers that Beluga Shipping hired to help their freighters break through drift ice.)
Update: both ships passed Novaya Zemlya on September 16.
Second Update: Beluga Foresight docked in Arkhangel, in northwestern Russia, on 19 September.