What tourists should consider when visiting the Canadian Arctic

Canadian Arctic is attracting more tourists than ever before. Arctic tourism
experts Jackie Dawson and Margaret Johnston offer suggestions on making the
most of a visit to these remote communities and fragile ecosystems.

By: /
9 August, 2016
A view of the tundra landscape around Meadowbank's open-pit mine in Nunavut, June 28, 2011. REUTERS/Euan Rocha

The Canadian Arctic, where harsh weather and subzero temperatures dominate for much of the year, has remained off the list of popular tourism destinations for decades. But not anymore. The beauty of the region has captured popular imagination, and now more tourists want to visit.

As a result, the Canadian Arctic has gone from being off the beaten path to very much on it. As Arctic researchers, we have visited numerous communities and spoken with scores of northerners who regularly interact with tourists in their homeland. Learning from their voices, we have put together a list of five things to consider when visiting Canada’s Arctic in order to make the most of your trip – with the least ecological and cultural disruption – to this unique and beautiful region.

1. Learn about the Arctic before you go and while you are there.

There is much in the Canadian Arctic that will leave you in awe, so take the opportunity to learn as much as you can in preparation for and during your visit. The Canadian Arctic experiences some of the harshest weather conditions for habitation on Earth. Climate change has only increased the challenges of living in the region as warming temperatures and melting sea ice have caused extreme environmental instability. Despite these challenges, Inuit in the region have lived successfully and innovatively in this environment for thousands of years, developing practices and technologies to adapt to the landscape.

Seek knowledge of the region’s environment, history and culture to make your trip even more rewarding. In particular, understand that great care is needed to preserve the land, water and air of the sensitive northern environment. You will not find signs warning you not to touch artifacts or to avoid trampling endangered vegetation that are typical in other tourist destinations. The region has remained natural and largely pristine because it has not had a lot of tourist use.

Hunting and gathering are still an important part of life for many residents of the North and these activities take priority. You may see signs of successful outings, such as fish drying or women working on hides; these could be opportunities to learn about local culture. Also, remember that dog teams are used for hunting and travel, so while you may see a dog team around town, they are working dogs, not pets, and they should not be touched or provoked in any way.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to have a conversation with Inuit elders, to try some traditional food, or to experience a cultural performance, you will enhance your appreciation for the residents of this remarkable land. You may even find yourself becoming an ambassador and advocate for the North.

2. Understand that the northern definition of city, town or community may differ from yours.

The sense of community in the Arctic is strong and may be quite different from what you are used to. In many parts of the world, it’s fine to wander around new places with your curiosity to guide you. In the Arctic, where many communities have only several hundred residents, a large number of visitors can be intrusive and distracting.

Look for information and welcoming guides, and talk to local residents about your interest in learning about their community. Always ask for permission before taking a picture of someone or their children. Don’t assume that it is OK to photograph homes or to go wherever you wish.

If in doubt, ask at the local hamlet office to find out where it is acceptable to wander. Or think about the words of an Inuit carver we spoke to: “The front door to your home is probably red and wooden and has a brass or brushed nickel door handle and lock. The front door to our house, to the home of our entire community, is in front of you when you step off the airplane or the ship you arrived here on. Our entire community is our home and you should treat it as if you were inside our living room.” 

3. Patience will be a necessary part of your Arctic trip.

Whatever kind of traveling you do, for work or pleasure, you need to be prepared for delays and changes in your schedule, and to budget for the unexpected. For example, fog is common in the late summer and fall and can leave you stuck in a community if the plane cannot depart or land. Instead of feeling frustrated, plan for it, and embrace it. Because this experience is common, the airlines and hotels know how to handle your delay, find you accommodation and rebook your flights. Rather than worry about what you are missing, take a deep breath and enjoy your “bonus” days. 

4. Visitor spending is an important part of the local economy.

The remote Arctic economy offers less opportunity for market-based jobs and employment. Visitor spending is important to the livelihoods of many Arctic residents who rely on the tourism industry as part of their income. Some industries, such as cruise tourism, have a big impact on Arctic communities but offer limited benefits unless tourists spend money on arts, crafts or other goods in the communities.

You may find products and services to be expensive in the region compared to what you see in chain stores or at southern tourist sites. Be generous and give proper value for locally made arts and handicrafts. Many items on offer are made from bone, stone or leather (such as sealskin or other furs), so know the rules about bringing wildlife products back home. 

5. Be prepared to be amazed!

The Arctic has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Remote and in many areas almost untouched, the sweeping tundra, towering icebergs and spectacular wildlife will all touch you in ways that you can’t anticipate. Be amazed, but leave the region as pristine as you found it. The Arctic has much to offer if you travel to it with an open mind. With the right mind-set, you can embrace cultural differences, as well as similarities, and gain a new appreciation for this remote and beautiful land and its resilient people. Enjoy your visit to the North! It will be the trip of a lifetime.

This article was produced in collaboration with Arctic Deeply.

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