Rites of the Northwest Passage

Shrinking sea ice is triggering a tourism shipping boom in the Arctic. But increased traffic may be a mixed blessing for Northerners.

Jackie Dawson

“This industry has grown so quickly, we’re not really ready. I have no doubt that we will have a major incident at some point.”

– Jackie Dawson

Canadians might be forgiven for feeling ambiguous about the prospect of climate change. While the phenomenon threatens to make many parts of the world warmer, drier and less habitable, this country could potentially see benefits. The steadily diminishing sea ice cover in the Arctic, for one, is already raising the likelihood of a tourism boom as this region experiences an unprecedented volume of marine tourist traffic.

Still, the impact of these visitors may be mixed, says Jackie Dawson, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy. Over the past decade, she has undertaken a thorough exploration of how tourism could change the Arctic as profoundly as the climate. Her work has focused on the community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, which is on many travel itineraries because of its location at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage and its proximity to wildlife and stunning scenery.

While the income that tourism can bring to these communities is appealing, their leaders are eager to deal with the attitude of tour companies. Some Canadian operators treat the residents of their destinations as partners with a shared stake in this activity, but international travel firms often maintain an approach established on many Caribbean islands, where the interests of local populations are regularly ignored.

“The North is not the same,” explains Dawson, referring to the fact that even a modest-sized cruise ship can overwhelm an isolated village. She recalls an artisan in Gjoa Haven, another popular destination in Nunavut, telling her that when passengers leave these vessels they are essentially entering the front door of his home and should act accordingly.

“That is not how tourists act in other places,” she adds. “This industry has grown so quickly, we’re not really ready. I have no doubt that we will have a major incident at some point.”

Problems may already be occurring, but there are few channels for reporting them to government or other authorities. In a 2014 paper published in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management, Dawson and colleagues from Canada and New Zealand highlighted the significant growth in “expedition” shipping to the Arctic Archipelago since 2005. Much of this area includes the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone, where ships over 300 gross tonnes are subject to specific safety and navigation regulations. The researchers observed that the monitoring and enforcement of these regulations can be difficult, as there are few resources available to cover a vast area that remains challenging to travel.

Yet sizable organized tours are not Dawson’s greatest worry. “I’m less concerned about those ships than about the yachts and the pleasure craft that show up randomly,” she says. “There are definitely unlicensed operators and there’s no way of monitoring them.”

In 2013 she co-authored two reports on the subject for Transport Canada which noted that the number of ships of all types travelling through the Canadian Arctic each year had increased from about 80 vessels in 1990 to more than 140 in 2012. A fraction of these were pleasure craft, now the fastest-growing sector of shipping in the region. More than half of them are registered in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

While those numbers are still small, they promise to grow with the rise of “last chance” tourism, driven by a mounting desire to see a part of the world that is expected to change irrevocably in the coming years due to the shifting climate. The arrival of individuals and groups acting on this desire could well contribute to this change. In contrast to tour vessels — whose operators have a vested interest in obtaining local knowledge about everything from Inuit customs to navigational hazards — passengers on a privately owned yacht could simply show up with only a minimal amount of preparation. Such visitors could easily disembark and do damage, without anyone knowing, at sensitive historic sites.

“We don’t have site guidelines,” Dawson argues. The Arctic Council, an international forum for countries with territory and interests in the region, recently mounted the Arctic Marine Tourism Project to begin framing principles for such guidelines. Last spring, this work yielded a set of best practices for member states to manage a sustainable and responsible Arctic tourism industry.

A great deal has yet to be done to turn these recommendations into hands-on governance, notes Dawson. “Basically the industry grew quicker than we could respond. Instead of being in a preventative situation we’re in a response mode.”

In the meantime, more and more visitors continue to come, for better or for worse.


By Tim Lougheed

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