A group of tourists in a small dinghy are approaching a herd of foul-smelling walruses resting on a rocky outcrop off the coast of Devon Island, Nunavut, when beluga whales arrive on the scene. The tourists catch glimpses of the backs of the whales as they trap a school of fish at the end of the bay.
But this is just a precursor to the real guest of honour: a massive bowhead whale that skirts along the coast before disappearing — "completely unimpressed" with the presence of the tourists.
For Toronto resident Barbara Kraus, this experience — with Arctic tourism company Adventure Canada — stands out as one of her most vivid memories of the half dozen trips she's taken to the Canadian Arctic, and left her feeling “amazement and awe at having the privilege of being so close to nature doing her thing.”
But this kind of beauty is not for everyone — if it were, it wouldn’t last, says a professor of nature-based tourism and sustainable development.
“If we are going to have tourism, we are going to sacrifice part of the environment,” says Alain A. Grenier of the Université du Québec à Montréal who has been to the Arctic a number of times and recently completed a three-week trip through the Eastern Canadian Arctic.
Major threats to Arctic sustainability include damage from increased shipping routes as well as resource extraction, but Grenier says that as the region warms up, the increasing number of tourists could have an adverse effect, unless some sort of long-term plan is put into place.
“If we wait until we have thousands of tourists going up there, it’s going to be too late,” he says.
Foreign Affair's spokesperson Ian Trites says that the Arctic Council — a group of Arctic countries that meets to discuss issues in the North — plans to encourage the benefits that tourism will bring to communities while reducing the risks associated with increased activity by establishing guidelines for sustainable tourism and cruise-ship operations.
Grenier says sustainability is based on three different factors: the social factor that concerns the sustainability of local people and culture, the environmental factor and the economic factor, which Grenier says means a shared profit.
In terms of the social aspect, he says that providing locals with gainful employment in tourism would be an important step in creating sustainability.
Cedar Swan, vice-president of Adventure Canada, which runs cruises and specialized Arctic adventure tours through Canada’s North, agrees with this. She says that throughout the 25 years the company has been providing tourists with experiences like Kraus’s, they’ve always maintained a close relationship with local people — what she calls “the first and foremost step in creating a sustainable company.” For her this includes employing locals and giving guests a firsthand account of “the real issues” of life in the Arctic instead of “white-washing the situation.”
“That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been a great success in the Canadian Arctic.”
Aside from the sociocultural factor, Grenier says one of the biggest impacts tourism has on the environment involves the flight people take to get to the Arctic and back. “This is where we pollute the most.”
In a sense Swan agrees. “If you want to make zero footprint, you don’t go to these places,” she says. “Tourism isn’t as eco as many organizations claim it is.”
But she believes that the connection created between people and places can outweigh that. She says that people who take these tours sometimes go on to advocate on Arctic issues, make future positive changes or generally increase knowledge about the issues.
“When you go there you understand that it’s a very sensitive ecosystem supporting a variety of life.”