Gjoa Haven residents want more shipwreck-related tourism, survey finds

Locals share hopes and concerns on developing a tourism industry for the Franklin wrecks

Pictured here in 2019, elders from Gjoa Haven speak with Parks Canada’s manager of underwater archeology, Marc-André Bernier, aboard a Parks Canada vessel. From left: Joanasie Ukuqtunnuaq, Saul Qirniq, Tommy Tavalok (front), Ben Putuguq (corner), Jimmy Qirqqut, Marc-André Bernier and underwater archeology team assistant Jonathan Puqiqnak (far right). (Photo courtesy of Parks Canada/Tamara Tarasoff)

By Mélanie Ritchot

Gjoa Haven residents would welcome visitors who want to visit the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and Terror, according to a new survey.

Melissa Weber, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, conducted the research alongside community researchers Gibson Porter, Naomi Nahalolik and Barbara Okpik, while Simon Okpakok provided Inuktitut and English interpretation.

The goal of their research was to gauge the community’s interest in receiving more tourists visiting the Franklin shipwrecks and hear their recommendations on developing a local tourist economy around the Wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site.

The information in the study was collected through interviews with 17 residents identified as knowledge holders or experts. Their research was published by Arctic Corridors, which does research on policy for shipping in Arctic Canada.

“The potential for economic development related to the discovery of the Franklin Wrecks is known to the community,” the study states. “The demand is there and the community needs to be prepared in order to maximize the benefit.”

Right now, access to the Wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site of Canada is restricted in order to preserve the sites. Nobody is allowed to enter without written authorization from Parks Canada, except in cases where the person is an Inuk from Nunavut who is accessing the site for harvesting, as part of the Nunavut Agreement.

If that restriction were to be lifted, the study found Gjoa Haven would need new infrastructure and facilities, like a larger airstrip, a deep sea port and cabins at the sites, in order to develop wreck-related tourism.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most tourists arrived in Gjoa Haven by cruise ship — in August and September — but the study participants said the tourist economy would benefit the community year-round if people could fly in at any time of year. The territory’s borders have been closed to tourism since March 2020, in an effort to keep out COVID-19.

Interviewees listed attractions in Gjoa Haven that could be part of a tourist experience, including a recently opened carving and sewing centre, local events like the Umiyaqtutt Festival and Gjoa Haven’s greenhouse.

Other activities, like dog sledding and dive tours, could be offered on top of sightseeing related to the shipwrecks.

Tourism-related infrastructure should benefit residents of Gjoa Haven as well, said the study participants, by giving them more transportation options and improving the community’s search-and-rescue capacity.

One big limitation to developing tourism at the sites of the Franklin wrecks, which are co-managedby Parks Canada and the community, is actually getting there.

“Right now there is no real access aside from using a big boat after sea ice breakup,” the study states.

Flights to Gjoa Haven are expensive and the Erebus is only accessible by boat. The Terror can be reached by land, but there are no trails or roads to lead the way.

The location of the Franklin wrecks sites and Gjoa Haven (Uqsuqtuuq), Nunavut. (Map from study published by Arctic Corridors Research.)

Tourism has increased in Gjoa Haven since the discovery of the Franklin wrecks in 2014 and 2016. The two ships are well known for their part of the Franklin Expedition in 1845, in search of the Northwest Passage.

After the first winter of the trip, the two ships got stuck in ice near King William Island and the 128 crewmen aboard died.

An uptick in tourists visiting the site and community could bring new business opportunities for youth, outfitters, and businesses in Gjoa Haven in general, interviewees said.

Potential new employment opportunities include working as site guardians, tour guides, artisans, interpreters and performers.

They also saw educational opportunities for both locals and tourists, as well as meaningful cultural exchanges, as a possibility.

On the other hand, those consulted expressed concerns about old camping grounds near the wrecks being disturbed and local hunters being negatively affected.

More concerns included other communities capitalizing on the wrecks, looters taking artifacts, or people taking advantage of artisans by offering them foreign currencies at unfair exchange rates.

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(4) Comments:

  1. Posted by George Archibald on

    For sure…..I am just saving up my 15K to travel to Gjoa Haven to see some boat underwater. Sounds like a jolly good time.

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  2. Posted by Umingmak on

    Tourism in Nunavut will never be successful for as long as Canadian North has a monopoly over air travel. The $250-350/night stays in crappy Inns Norths don’t help either.

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  3. Posted by If you build it will they come? on

    Every community wants tourism but the reality is that an underwater shipwreck will only attract a very niche clientele.

    The reality: Gjoa haven is a dry community with very little infrastructure to sustain tourism.

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  4. Posted by The ecology of tourism on

    This is a great idea – but needs much more thought. The wrecks themselves will only be interesting to a very small group (and it seems to me thats a group thats shrinking as they age out of tourism altogether) – in order to expand that tourism potential the community needs to think about how to attract people AND how to retain them for more than the couple of days you get out of cruise traffic. Wrecks alone aren’t enough of a draw. I’d be looking at trying to develop some kind of trail, or multi-site experience that ties the wreck into the broader ecological and cultural landscape. Day 1, you get shown around the community, Day 2 you go check out the wreck, Day 3 you go camping and observe wildlife etc. etc.

    As an example, there are a number of hiking trails on the west coast of Greenland which communities have developed between huts. I would spend my vacation dime going to Greenland to hike there, over going to similar landscapes in Nunavut, because even though it will cost the same (if not more) – the infrastructure is there.

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