'People come back saying how wonderful these places are.'
Nunavik told to brace itself for tourist boom
The tourists are coming! This was one take-home message from a conference on polar tourism held two weeks ago in Kangiqsujuaq.
"When people say tourism won't explode here, I say just look at Antarctica," said Alain Grenier, a professor of nature-based tourism at the University of Quebec in Montreal, who helped organize the four-day conference.
Antarctica, a polar landmass once thought to be impenetrable, saw 50,000 visitors last season.
Currently about 4,000 tourists a year visit Nunavik, according to a recent Kativik Regional Government study.
But that number is sure to increase, speculated tourism researchers and sociologists attending the conference.
Arctic attractions include polar bears, icebergs, solitude, and a chance to go where famous polar explorers once narrowly escaped death, said conference-goers.
And in Nunavik these sights are getting easier to see: Pingaluit, Nunavik's first provincial park, which protects a 1.4 million year old meteor crater containing waters said to be some of the purest on earth, opened last November and two more parks are on the drawing boards; two cruise companies now run tours out of Kuujjuaq and global warming is lengthening the summer tourist season.
The Kangiqsujuaq conference kicked off with a trip via Air Inuit charter to Pingaluit provincial park, 88 kilometres west of Kangiqsujuaq. In summer the park is only accessible by plane or helicopter charter, which can cost well into the thousands, for a four-day trek.
The conference participants slogged through mud in a frigid drizzle and stumbled up a slippery boulder slope to the crater rim.
The lake shimmered beneath wisps of mists, blue beyond belief. After only half an hour it was time to trek back across the barren landscape to the awaiting plane.
"I do a lot of climbing so I love this type of touring," said Hans Gelter, a Swedish tourism researcher.
Others failed to finish the climb. "It's not my cup of tea," said one attendee. "It was very slippery, and this wasn't the time to twist an ankle."
Comments like this indicate the trouble of bringing tourists to Nunavik. Amenities, such as a boardwalk in this case, are still lacking, although some wondered if such an improvement wouldn't ruin the rustic nature of the park.
Before Nunavik can accommodate more tourists, communities will have to build additional facilities, said George Berthe, a member of the Makivik Corp. executive.
"Restaurant facilities are lacking, and also reception and conference halls," Berthe said. "These are physical challenges that are very real, and we need these physical items to develop tourism potential."
Another hitch to polar tourism development is the difference between an outsider's view of what's special and the local perspective.
"At first we didn't know what to offer tourists," Lucassie Pilurtuut, president of the Nunaturlik Landholding Corporation of Kangiqsujuaq, told the conference. "The only thing we had was the crater, but for us it was just a hole in the ground."
Now it's a park and a potential magnet for tourists, many hope.
Several speakers presented mind-boggling facts about the tourism boom already underway in Antarctica: planes landing there once had room for just 10 passengers but can now haul 100, cruise ships carrying thousands currently make the stormy crossing from the tip of South America and hotels have even arrived.
Uruguay recently built a rustic lodge on their patch of the white continent – $1,000 a night gets you a cot on a wooden bunk.
"Word of mouth is very powerful," said Debra Enzenbacher, a polar tourism expert from Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom. "People come back from these trips extolling their virtues, saying how wonderful these places are."
But in Antarctica there are no indigenous peoples, pointed out Enzenbacher. Antarctica is governed by a treaty signed by 45 countries, including Colombia, Cuba and Canada.
About 95 per cent of Antarctica has never been touched by people, whereas the Arctic has been occupied by humans for thousands of years. And numerous indigenous peoples still live in the Arctic, including Saami in northern Europe, Yukaghir and Nenets in Russia and, of course, Inuit.
Several speakers stressed Arctic tourism should focus on interaction with these unique cultures. However, others pointed out that tourists typically care most about seeing wildlife or dramatic scenery.
But the people of Nunavik still come first, said Berthe.
"Yes, this is a beautiful place," he said, "but perhaps they don't want it overrun with tourists."