Sunday, August 24, 2008

Record number of cruise ships in Canadian Arctic this summer

Source: Canadian Press: Bob Weber, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Polar bears and glaciers may be icons of northern climate change but they are also swelling the sails of Nunavut's tourism industry.

A record number of cruise ships are plying Canada's Eastern Arctic this summer and some remote communities are welcoming an average of two a week.

Industry and government officials say there's still plenty of room for growth, but they're also cautious of overwhelming tiny hamlets with populations barely larger than those in the ships moored off their shores.

"You kind of wonder if you're in a museum sometimes," said Mike Richards, senior administrative officer in Pond Inlet on the northern tip of Baffin Island, where 14 boatloads of the camera-toting curious are expected to have docked between the end of July and the beginning of September.

A total of 26 cruises have been scheduled for this season - four more than last year, said Mark Young of the territorial government. That's more than 3,000 visitors sailing the Arctic and dropping in on communities from Grise Fiord to Kimmirut.

Those figures are tiny compared to cruise boats in Greenland, which expects 55,000 tourists this season in ships that can accommodate more than 2,000 passengers.

But for Nunavut, small is beautiful, said Prisca Campbell of Quark Expeditions, which has been running polar tours since 1991.

"We're not keen to change the Arctic to accommodate 2,000-passenger ships," she said.

Wildlife and majestic scenery are probably the main draws for most Arctic tourists, but cultural exchange is also part of it. Cruise directors get in touch with local officials when they want to visit a community and residents often pull together a program to entertain visitors.

"(We do) bannock-making, sealskin-cleaning, carving demonstrations - things that tourists might be interested in," said Akeego Ikkidluak, Kimmirut's senior adiminstrative officer.

Inuit sports such as the high kick and cultural activities that include throat singing are also demonstrated. Guides take people around town - not that most Arctic communities offer much in the way of shopping, dining or architectural delight.

"They're usually horrified by the price we pay for groceries and necessities," said Richards. "They just kind of wander around looking at these shabby old buildings and think, 'How do people live like this?"'

Sometimes, children follow the visitors and ask for handouts.

"You can't control the kids."

Those are the kinds of impacts tour operators try to avoid, said Jillian Dickens of Cruise North, an Inuit-owned sailing operator since 2005.

"I don't think it's a good thing to encourage," she said.

"We have to be really careful about respecting the communities. What's important is communication between the ship and the community to have equal benefit."

Some communities specifically ask visitors not to bring handouts such as candy, said Campbell. In some of the Russian hamlets that Quark visits, tourists who want to leave something behind for young people are asked if they'd like to contribute to a fund for basketballs and hockey sticks.

"We are sensitive to that in communities where we go."

Tourists do drop about $250,000 into Nunavut's cash-starved economy. Most goes to carvers and other artists, but performers and tour guides are also paid.

"It brings in a big influx of cash in the summer," said Young. "(Tourists) could drop close to $40,000 in one community in one six-hour stay."

The money's welcome, said Ikkidluak

"It's not a big, big deal, but it's a deal."

And demand remains strong.

Dickens said bookings have increased 50 per cent over last year.

"It's the only part of tourism in Nunavut that's growing."

That growth will continue to be limited because none of the territory's 24 coastal communities has docking facilities, forcing visitors to run up on beaches in Zodiac boats. Larger communities such as Iqaluit are unable to provide any services such as refuelling, which would increase economic spinoffs.

Still, Campbell said, the waters that generations of explorers suffered to chart are going to see more and more tourists.

"We think there's extraordinary potential and we think it's going to be around for a long time."

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