The Northern Sea Route, also called the Northeast Passage, follows along the coast of northern Russia between the Bering Strait in the east and the north cape of Norway in the west.
A report Sunday in the British newspaper The Guardian noted the Arctic's summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40 percent in the last few decades, a notion "that is proving irresistible to shipping lines, not to mention mining companies as well as oil and gas exploration firms."
In choosing the Arctic route, shippers bypass the fractious Suez Canal region amid increasing violence in Egypt. A longer route, around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, to avoid the Suez would result in higher shipping costs.
"The most significant impact will be on the energy sector, especially between the Far East and Europe," Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime, told The Wall Street Journal. Li emphasized Asian countries are well placed to exploit the route to access emerging oil and gas markets in Europe, especially Russia.
In May, China, India, Singapore, Japan and South Korea were granted observer status at the Arctic Council, an organization that focuses in part on boosting trade.
Earlier this month a 20,943-ton cargo ship operated by China's state-owned Cosco Group sailed from Dalian in northeast China to Rotterdam via the Northeast Passage.
While the voyage from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal takes about 48 days, traveling by the Northern Sea Route will take about 35 days, Cosco says.
The reduction in sailing time, notes the Journal report, can create savings for shippers to offset such costs as additional insurance and the hiring of ice breakers, which may be needed to clear the path for vessels.
Gas condensate and iron have been shipped via the Northern Sea Route in the last few years, and last year Russia's Gazprom sent a load of liquefied natural gas to Japan as a test run.
However, the latest shipments on the Northern Sea Route include oil products headed east to Japan from Norway -- one of which has already arrived -- and high-quality diesel shipping from South Korea destined for Europe, the Journal report says, citing ship-tracking data.
The Guardian notes Russian authorities last week said permission had been granted for more than 370 ships to sale the route this year although it did not specify if those were energy-related shipments. Last year, only 46 ships sailed the entire length of the passage from Europe to Asia.
That compares with 18,000 vessels that passed through the Suez Canal in 2011, carrying 929 million tons of cargo.