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Canada’s Arctic an Untapped Gold Mine … of Tourism

Foreign tourists helped Iceland back on its feet after its economy bottomed out. Canada’s Arctic is just as stunning and culturally rich, but it still lacks easy transportation, hotels and other amenities for tourism to give the region an economic boost.

Written by Ed Struzik Published on Read time Approx. 18 minutes
Otto fiord1 panorama copy
Ellesmere Island in Canada’s High Arctic is a gold mine of tourism opportunities. But the absence of trained guides and the prohibitively high cost of getting there and back is a major deterrent.Ed Struzik

There is an unnamed stream on one of Canada’s High Arctic islands that is clear and cold, and thick with char, a cold-water fish, at certain times of the summer. It plunges from a high, boulder-strewn plateau to a lowland meadow, where it winds its way slowly through the sedge, grass and willow bushes.

When I camped there many summers ago, I spotted flightless snowy owl chicks tucked beneath the shrubbery. The lemming cycle had peaked by then, so it was no surprise to see Arctic foxes hunting along the stream banks for food to take to their young ones. Long-tailed jaegers hovered above, ready to pluck lemmings from the ground or scavenge whatever the foxes might have left behind.

One night, I was awakened by the howls of Arctic wolves. I popped my head out of the tent and was surprised to spot the family no more than 20m (66ft) away. The big white alpha male was bounding side-to-side and barking like a guard dog on the end of a long chain. After a good half-hour, the big wolf strutted over to our tents, peed on one, and then loped off with the female and their two pups.

It rained hard the following morning. When it finally let up, I went for a long walk to see the snowy owl chicks. But I couldn’t find them or the hen that was always close by. I scanned the wet sand for their prints and spotted instead the fresh tracks of a polar bear. Alone and without a gun, I made a hasty retreat back to camp.

Later that night, I hiked upstream to the top of a tall rock spire that separated the stark plateau from the verdant meadow below. I sat there for several hours, beneath the midnight sun hovering on the horizon, staring at the ribbon of clear water as it flowed to the Arctic Ocean. A thick fog, which had hovered along the coast all day, moved in, blanketing everything but me and the hilltop.

I had done this sort of Arctic adventure travel dozens of times, never doubting that some day plane-loads of tourists would disembark into this sublime, dreamy landscape. I was so confident of this that I started a small business with a friend in Inuvik, a town in the Northwest Territories. We rented out canoes, kayaks and other gear, and provided trip reports, detailed descriptions of suggested routes and excursions, to visitors from southern Canada, the United States and Europe.

But I was wrong to think that tourism would be embraced by governments looking to kick-start a nascent Arctic economy. Instead of investing significantly in airports, hotels, tour companies and other infrastructure that supports tourism, both the Canadian and territorial governments bet heavily on oil, gas and mining. They lost that wager. Big time.

After 40 years of exploration and hundreds of millions of dollars of government incentives and subsidies, only one shipload of commercial oil has been ferried from the Canadian Arctic. And that proved only that it was possible to ship Arctic oil south, even if it was not economically practical. Two efforts to build multibillion-dollar natural gas pipelines have failed and the C$300 million road linking Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is unlikely to encourage oil and gas development, as it was intended to do [Note: C$1 = roughly US$0.78]. The price of oil will not rebound enough to make offshore Arctic energy attractive any time soon.

Yet confidence in the future of Arctic energy remains. In June, the National Energy Board extended the sunset clauses for the Mackenzie Gas Project’s pipeline and gas-gathering system to December 31, 2022, explaining that it was still in the national interest.

All levels of governments continue to boost mining. More than 30 new projects are now moving through the regulatory process. But apart from diamond mines, there have been few successes to date. The Kiggavik uranium mine near Baker Lake has been mired in a lengthy environmental process since 2009, Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation – the most promising of all – has been battered by missed production targets and low iron-ore prices, and the Cantung mine in the Northwest Territories closed in October 2015, owing C$75 million to hundreds of creditors. Government inspectors have found it failed to report toxic spills and leaks.

More than C$1 billion will be spent on the remediation and cleanup of the Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories. But hundreds of thousands of tons of arsenic trioxide will remain frozen underground. (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada)

The environmental cost of many of these mines raises doubts over whether this is government money well spent. The Giant Mine at Yellowknife stands out. According to a 2013 report, the federal government doled out C$47 million in subsidies, but received only C$16 million in royalties. The C$454 million in income taxes it collected from mine employees will not come close to covering the more than C$1 billion in cleanup and remediation costs. There is no way to deal with the 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, a proven carcinogen, left behind in 13 underground chambers. Meanwhile, its owners made C$867 million in profits.

Mining projects often operate on short timescales. There’s a boom and a bust, which can cause problems for local populations, who may also be left dealing with the environmental aftermath. The toxic messes left at abandoned mines have saddled Canadian governments with enormous clean-up costs. It will take an estimated C$7 billion to clean up all of the federally owned contaminated sites, including shuttered mines in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Tourism, by comparison, has the allure of being more sustainable on social, economic and environmental levels. Adventure, sports, leisure and cultural tourism are among the fastest growing forms of tourism in the world. The adventure tourism market grew by 65 percent annually between 2009 and 2012, according to a George Washington University study of Europe, North America and South America.

Despite their cooler climates, Iceland, Greenland and Norway are attracting tourists wanting nature, adventure and cultural experiences. Canada can learn from these Arctic nations. Between 2002 and 2013, almost all countries posted increases in international tourist visits – except Canada, which has been steadily losing its share of the global tourism market.

When I first visited Iceland in 1991, there were few places to stay outside of Reykjavik except for spartan student dormitories with single beds and thin mattresses. Each night, in the cold gymnasium, we were served one of two dishes: roast mutton or steamed salmon, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper. Most people didn’t know what to make of us.

Iceland has become a tourism powerhouse since then. It promotes its innumerable waterfalls, geysers and glaciers alongside cathedrals, musical events and restaurants that now serve cuisine rivaling Europe’s best. Almost 1 million foreign tourists visited Iceland in 2014 – three times more than in 2000. That surge has translated into jobs. Employment growth in the tourism sector has increased 37.6 percent since 2010, considerably outpacing overall employment growth at 6 percent. In terms of export revenue, tourism now does better than the fishing and aluminum.

To compare Iceland to Arctic Canada is not entirely fair. Iceland has ten times the population of Nunavut, but it also has a road that rings the island and two airlines that offer competitively priced flights between Europe and North America (with a stop in Reykjavik) that have undoubtedly helped attract tourists. Icelandair Group continues to shore up its infrastructure, which includes travel agents and hotels throughout the country.

Greenland is a more apt comparison. The country has no roads linking communities and a population that is culturally similar to that of Nunavut. But it has also made great strides in attracting tourists from all over the world. In 2015, almost 70,000 people visited the island. People come not just because Greenland has glaciers, geysers and whales; they come because Denmark has invested in museums, the arts, housing and other infrastructure that make tourists feel welcome and give them plenty to do.

Ivvavik National Park in the northern Yukon offers some of the most stunning tundra and mountain scenery in the Arctic in addition to the barren-ground caribou, grizzlies and other Arctic animals that inhabit the region. But like most national parks in the Arctic, Ivvavik never gets more than 150 visitors each year. Other parks such as Aulavik and Tuktuk Nogait rarely get more than 20 people visiting annually. (Ed Struzik)

Ivvavik National Park in the northern Yukon offers some of the most stunning tundra and mountain scenery in the Arctic in addition to the barren-ground caribou, grizzlies and other Arctic animals that inhabit the region. But like most national parks in the Arctic, Ivvavik never gets more than 150 visitors each year. Other parks such as Aulavik and Tuktuk Nogait rarely get more than 20 people visiting annually. (Ed Struzik)

The Canadian North has the same outdoor and cultural appeal, but it hasn’t kept pace with Greenland. Although more tourists have been coming to Canada to view the aurora borealis, that activity may well have peaked. Outdoor adventurers are no longer making the trek to the Northwest Territories; their numbers recently dropped nearly 40 percent in a single year, from 3,100 to 1,900. Forest fires may have deterred them that year, but the decline reflects a decade-long trend. Revenues from licensed sport hunts and fishing in Nunavut decreased by C$6 million between 2007 and 2011. A federal ban on the export of polar bear skins was one of the reasons for the decline, but now there’s also a shortage of trained outfitters to meet the demand for hunting and fishing trips in Nunavut.

Even Parks Canada, which administers some of the most scenic real estate in the entire Arctic world, can’t seem to lure people into its northern national parks. One-half to two-thirds of the world’s muskoxen roam the verdant river valleys of Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, but only once since 2005 has the park seen more than 20 visitors. Quttinirpaaq National Park on northern Ellesmere Island features magnificent glaciers and the highest peaks in eastern North America, but just 23 people flew to the park in 2014, an improvement over the five tourists that came in 2013. Even Tuktut Nogait, a two-hour flight from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, with its magnificent La Roncière waterfall on the Hornaday River, the spectacular Brock River Canyon and the calving grounds for the Bluenose-West caribou, has been striking out. No one showed up at all one year and only once has the park been the destination of more than 50 people in a single year.

The poor showing is not for lack of wanting tourists. Tessum Weber sits on the board of Nunavut Tourism, which was behind “Tunngasaiji,” a comprehensive 2013 report that advised how a tourism strategy could move forward. In many ways, it echoed a 2008 report that followed a meeting of northern development ministers. That report identified transportation, national and global competition, the lack of skilled labor, poor marketing and the scarcity of “market ready, local products” as barriers to the growth of tourism. The Tunngasaiji report calls for a Nunavut-specific tourism and travel legislation and regulations to guide the industry, tourism skills development, community readiness plans and more regulation and oversight for the cruise ship industry, among others. By 2018, Nunavut aims to generate C$49 million revenues from the tourism sector, a 23 percent increase over 2013.

Despite these recommendations, transportation remains challenging in Nunavut and many parts of the Northwest Territories. Weber’s family has operated the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago since 1999. Their seasonal camp at Cunningham Inlet, across the sound from Resolute, has it all: polar bears, muskoxen, a crystal-clear river flowing through the tundra and hundreds of beluga whales that turn up close to shore every summer to molt (shed their skin), play and nurse their young. The food served at the lodge, according to testimonials, is to die for.

But a return flight from Toronto to Resolute can easily cost C$7,000 or more. By comparison, one can book a same-day return flight from Toronto to Sydney, Australia, in business class for roughly half that amount. High costs were one of the reasons the family-owned Frontiers North Adventures, which had been operating in the Arctic for nearly 25 years, pulled out of the Arctic to focus on northern Manitoba. And because of unpredictable weather, overbooking and mechanical issues, tourists can get way-laid for a day or more. The Webers now charter planes from Yellowknife. “It isn’t cheap,” says Weber. “But it is reliable.”

If getting to Nunavut and other more remote areas of the Canadian Arctic weren’t difficult enough, it can also be challenging to find a trained guide or even a place to stay once you’re there. Grise Fiord, North America’s most northerly community, is a boat ride away from a number of unique attractions. But hiring someone to take you to see Atlantic walrus in Hell Gate Polynya or the glaciers, ice fields and nesting birds of Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area at Coburg Island can be a problem. Tuktoyaktuk will soon be the only community on the Arctic coast of North America with a public road connecting it to the south, but it has no hotel to persuade people to stay.

Some long-time operators, including the Webers, Graham Dickson of Arctic Kingdom and Neil Hartling of Nahanni River Adventures and Canadian River Adventures, have managed to get by with persistence, ingenuity and by customizing trips to suit small, well-heeled groups. Hartling has catered to many high-profile clients, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, environmental lawyer Bobby Kennedy Jr. and other politicians since he began operations in 1985. But, like others, he’s concerned that Canada’s governments tend to view tourism operators as the “belles of the ball” when times are tough in the resource industry and “ugly ducklings” when resource opportunities open up.

The Yukon’s Peel River watershed is a perfect example of this. It is the northern anchor in the Yukon to Yellowstone Conservation Initiative – a U.S.-Canadian initiative to link core habitats along the Rocky Mountains – and one of the most scenic, accessible and biologically productive regions in the entire Arctic. Five years ago, a land-use planning report prepared by the territorial and First Nations governments called for the protection of 80 percent of the watershed, but it’s clear to many that the conservative-minded Yukon Party government, which has ruled for the past decade, would rather increase mineral exploration there. “So goes mining, so goes Yukon,” Premier Darrell Pasloski likes to say. In late 2015, The Yukon Court of Appeal affirmed the Yukon Government’s failure to honor its treaty obligations. The matter is in the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada.

In sparsely populated and remote northern communities looking to improve their lot, there are often few opportunities beyond tourism and natural resource extraction. But a commitment to tourism – and the necessary investment – could have lasting impacts, even in northern Canada.

Several years ago, the port town of Churchill, Manitoba, was faced with the theoretical prospect of becoming the terminus for a pipeline transporting Alberta’s bitumen to Hudson Bay. The mayor flatly rejected the idea, fearing that it could hurt the town’s thriving polar-bear tourism industry if there were a spill. Churchill had hit the tourism jackpot decades earlier.

In 1966, the town was in a steady decline following the withdrawal of the military that had begun two years earlier. The Igloo Theater had closed its doors that summer, as had the Steak House, the town’s only restaurant. Its prospects looked bleak. The town’s commercial enterprises included the Eskimo Museum, a couple of hotels, a garage, the Hudson’s Bay store, the Masonic Hall, and Sigurdson and Martin’s Supermarket. Many of the homes were tarpapered shacks with slapdash additions that paid no heed to municipal codes. Drinking water was trucked in and stored in old fuel drums. A consultant sent up to evaluate the living conditions in the late 1960s described them as “among the most wretched in Canada.”

But his report fell on deaf ears. Instead of offering aid, the Canadian government announced that it would eliminate 250 jobs at the rocket launching complex and move the northern federal services being offered out of Churchill to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit). Rumors and newspaper editorials followed suggesting that the money-losing port could close. Gordon Beard, the riding’s elected representative, was so distraught that he suggested the provincial government “lock the whole show up and leave Churchill to the polar bears.”

The polar bears, which numbered 1,200, were another worry back then. More and more of the animals were looking for food in the community’s dumps or, in some cases, people’s homes. As many as 29 bears were being killed each year to protect people and their property. By the early 1970s, it was apparent that if nothing were done to address the problem, the situation was going to become a lot worse. Remarkably, science, sanity and public opinion turned things around.

A 1976 survey of every adult in Churchill asked for solutions to the polar bear problem. There were those who predictably suggested that all the animals should be killed, but a significant number of people wanted to find a way to live with the animals. Many of the letters were thoughtful reflections on the past and proposed changes for the future.

The Churchill Polar Bear Committee released a plan in 1977 to create what amounted to a polar bear jail for so-called “problem bears” that might have otherwise been shot. It also recommended a more humane protocol for deterring bears and envisioned opportunities for wildlife tourism. The plan was not perfect and, unofficially, it remains a work in progress; however, there has never been anything quite like it in northern Canada.

By 1984, National Geographic, Audubon, Smithsonian magazine, the New York Times, Time magazine, the U.K.’s Daily Mirror and Le Figaro had all already devoted considerable space to Churchill’s polar bears. Life magazine sandwiched a 5,000-word article on them between one on the Shroud of Turin and another on the 20th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America. In 1996, tourism and travel accounted for 40 percent of the local jobs and more than C$6.5 million in revenue.

Today, more than 20 companies, including Frontiers North Adventures, Churchill Wild, Sea North Tours and Great White Bear Tours, as well as a number of hotels, restaurants and businesses, thrive on the more than 3,000 people who come to see the polar bears during the six-week viewing season. The beluga whales, the Eskimo Museum, Prince of Wales Fort and other attractions bring in even more tourists earlier in the year. Churchill’s economy still struggles with a short tourist season and the port’s uncertain future, but it is solid enough for the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and other organizations to invest heavily in the redevelopment of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which attracts scientists from all over the continent.

Beluga whales swim in Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. (Wikimedia Commons/Ansgar Walk, CC BY 2.5)

Beluga whales swim in Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. (Wikimedia Commons/Ansgar Walk, CC BY 2.5)

Mike Reimer, the owner of Churchill Wild, is one of a number of locals who have benefited from the foundations laid down by the Churchill Polar Bear Committee in 1977. He and his wife own four lodges, including one at Seal River, which National Geographic recently ranked as one of the “Unique Lodges of the World.” According to the magazine, Churchill Wild is one of the only adventure companies in the world that approaches the tundra, polar bears and beluga whales on foot, calling the experience “intimate and thrilling. And it inspires a deep appreciation for the complexity and the richness of this northern wilderness.”

“When we started in 1993, we had to beg, borrow and scrape to get by. No bank would touch us. There was very little outside funding back then and there is little today,” says Reimer.

Tourism could contribute to the economy of the Arctic as it has in Churchill. But according to Alain Grenier, professor of urban studies and tourism at the Université du Québec à Montréal, it is not always a reliable opportunity. A financial assistance program for tourism development north of the 49th parallel has provided C$70 million to 48 projects by April 2015, but there have been few signs of success so far.

Still, Grenier sees the potential for growth in a lot of areas. Cruise ships are beginning to sail through the Canadian Arctic with hundreds of passengers on board and eager to visit Inuit communities. But he says it’s irresponsible for the Canadian government to allow big ones, such as the Crystal Serenity with 1,600 people on board, to transit the Northwest Passage in waters that have been largely uncharted and are still filled with ice. There’s also an opportunity to exploit the Arctic’s 24 hours of darkness and its culture, but that won’t come, he says, if provincial, territorial and federal governments continue to make lukewarm investments in housing, infrastructure, transportation, training, marketing and other tourist-friendly initiatives in the Canadian Arctic.

It’s difficult to blame the territories for their tourism troubles when they depend so heavily on Ottawa to meet their financial needs. Nunavut must maintain 25 arenas, 25 schools and 25 health centers and hospitals across a territory with a tax base of just 37,000 people. It has no buckets of money set aside to develop its tourism industry. What’s more, its tax base loses C$300 million annually to the hundreds of fly-in workers from the south who work in mines, build houses and repair the infrastructure.

Lights of the aurora borealis illuminate the night in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, on September 24, 2014.

Lights of the aurora borealis illuminate the night in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, on September 24, 2014. (Flickr/Natasha Ewing, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The federal government has generally been reluctant to invest in housing, infrastructure and bold ideas in the North. The Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay is an exception. In addition to serving the needs of Arctic scientists, the C$142.4 million project was designed to have several public spaces – outdoors as well as indoors – including a cafe run by Inuit, a viewing area and art displays for tourists.

“It is absolutely amazing what CHARS has done for our community already,” says Jeannie Ehaloak, the mayor of Cambridge Bay. “Because of CHARS (which will open in 2017), we now have four restaurants, a new lodge and five or six new lodging places. It’s booming here. We’re opening up 240 residential lots for housing. This is going to affect the quality of the stores we have, the schools, municipal services and the delivery of healthcare. And it’s going to attract a lot of tourists.”

But much more of this needs to be done to get past the decades of inertia that have characterized the government’s approach to Arctic tourism. The Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency has made some recent investments in tourism. In April, for example, it put C$500,000 into the development of a community-owned corporation to provide ecotourism services in Arctic Bay, a community near Sirmilik National Park and the proposed Lancaster Sound marine conservation area. But there is plenty of opportunity to build tourism infrastructure around natural, adventure and cultural focal points in the Arctic.

After much arm-twisting, Parks Canada agreed to invest C$16.9 million into a visitors’ center in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to support the research and presentation of the history of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find a northwest passage through the Arctic. Although the artifacts retrieved from the sunken Erebus will remain in the south, the Franklin Visitor Center is an important baby step that should help kick-start tourism in the High Arctic.

Over the past four decades, paleontologists have found the fossil remains of alligators, miniature beavers, three-toed horses, brontotheres (an extinct mammal family) and camels that once lived in a much warmer Arctic. But few, if any, of the fossils they collected are on display in Nunavut because there is no museum in which to showcase them. These, and other cultural artifacts, are currently exhibited in museums in Ottawa, Yellowknife and elsewhere.

More than three-quarters of the visitors to Nunavut participated in cultural activities in 2011. Further investments into natural history museums and cultural experiences can open up additional economic opportunities in the tourism sector, as they did in Cambridge Bay and in Churchill, and lead to new jobs and improved social conditions.

“The Arctic is a gold mine that has been largely unexploited,” says Churchill’s Reimer. “In my mind, it will stay that way so long as it costs so much to get people to these places. There is a role for the government to play, but it shouldn’t involve giving people money. That’s a recipe for failure.”

This story was made possible through a partnership with OpenCanada, a digital publication covering foreign policy and international affairs.

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