Must tourists destroy the things they love?
“We hate it when indigenous people are treated like objects”
YELLOWKNIFE – Curse or blessing? Tourism in Arctic regions can be both, according to participants in a discussion on tourism held at the Northern Research Forum.
The forum brought together academics, bureaucrats, politicians, students and indigenous leaders from around the northern world to Yellowknife last week to discuss circumpolar concerns.
They agreed the key to reaping benefits from tourism lies in controlling where, when, and how many tourists visit a region, so they don’t have a negative impact.
In the Saami territory of northern Finland, the Saami are regularly used as colourful cultural mascots for the region. Jets bring in planeloads of tourists over the Christmas season to meet Santa Claus, nearly half a million others come to ski there during the winter and spring and, in summer, droves of tourists arrive from southern Europe.
But mass tourism is not good for indigenous people, said Tarmo Jomppanen, director of the Siida Saami museum in Inari, Finland, which receives more than 50,000 visitors a year.
“It can ruin the local culture,” said Jomppanen, who notes the local and regional governments’ decisions are made according to what tourists – not the local Saami – want and need.
In Chukotka and the other remote regions of the Russian Far East, tourism is good for the economy, but bad for the people.
“We hate it when indigenous people are treated like objects,” said Larissa Abrutina, a Yupik and vice-president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North.
Often tourists buy native crafts for a few U.S., dollars which, it turns out, local people can’t legally use or exchange, but take because they’re desperate for the money.
And it’s “quite insulting,” Abrutina said, when tourists come into Chukotkan villages and throw candy and money on the floor to see children scramble, much to the dismay of elders. Tourist guides often ask locals to dance, but only certain dances.
“The indigenous people have to adapt to the tourists,” Abrutina said.
At its best, she said tourism can be “a dialogue of cultures,” but in the Russian Far East and North, it’s killing their culture.
But several people at the well-attended forum said mass tourism is still on the horizon, particularly with the advent of cruise ships that can go anywhere.
Olafur Grimsson, the president of Iceland, a country that has aggressively promoted tourism, said the natural environment of the North has a powerful attraction.
Grimsson said the first person he met in Yellowknife was a Japanese tourist, one of tens of thousands of Japanese who come every year to see the northern lights.
Grimsson said the Arctic regions need to seriously consider how they want to develop tourism at the local, regional and international level.
“What are we going to do when millions and millions of people want to visit the North?” he asked.
But even the presence of small numbers of people in a community who are eager to experience a culture can be a stress, noted an Alaskan Inupiat, Patricia Longley Cochrane.
And eco-tourism can be difficult to develop, particularly in resource-rich areas. In the Siberian Komi region stand Europe’s sole remaining virgin forests. The possibility of tourism exists there now only because the economy isn’t focused on lumber, but on oil and gas development.
There, a combination of “horror” tourism and eco-tourism, where tourists are brought to visit ecologically ravaged places and to the virgin forest, has produced some interest.
But if this “window of opportunity” to build a sustainable tourist market isn’t grabbed, said Finnish researcher Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, it will be lost and loggers will eventually move in.