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Flying North for the Summer

in 61st Parallel by

Just a couple of weeks from now I’ll be starting my summer vacation, traveling first to Ontario and then back to Newfoundland. As much as I’m enjoying my life in the north, I’m looking forward to spending some time in the bustle of our southern cities and the warmer temperatures that I keep seeing on the Weather Network. As I write this, it’s about -5 with the windchill, and only once since June began has the temperature gone into the double digits. Well, positive double digits, anyway.

I’m told it’s been an abnormally cold June, but that doesn’t make me miss the summer any less. So I’ve been searching the web for things to do in Ontario and back in Newfoundland. Although most of my time will be taken up with visiting friends and family, revisiting my favourite bars and restaurants, and shopping for our summer sealift order, I still want to make some touristy plans to visit museums, art galleries, and check out whatever concerts or festivals might be happening while I’m in town.

Tourism in Arviat

But while I’m making plans to be a tourist down south, there are others making plans to be a tourist in the north. Tourism is a small but important part of Nunavut’s economy. Historically based on hunting and fishing and fly-in lodges, the territory is increasingly trying to develop its eco- and cultural tourism industry. And in many ways, Arviat is at the forefront of that development.

Arviat has the benefit of being the most southerly community in Nunavut. That means that it is easier to get to than, say, Grise Fjord or Gjoa Haven, which have fewer scheduled flights that are much more expensive than those to Arviat, and which are considerably farther away from a major centre. That also means that Arviat is quite close to Churchill, Manitoba, the best-known tourist destination for polar bear watching in Canada, possibly in the world. And just as importantly, Arviat is known as a community where Inuit traditions and language are still relatively strong.

The ACE Initiative

The Arviat Cultural Ecotourism (ACE) Initiative was developed to turn these geographical and cultural advantages into viable business opportunities for the community. A 5-year project funded largely by Nunavut Tungavvik Incorporated (the Nunavut-wide Inuit representative organization), the ACE initiative is intended to build tourism capacity in Arviat and market the town as an eco-cultural tourist destination, with the ultimate goal of increasing tourist visits and revenue to the community (allowing local people to make a living directly from the tourist industry) and improve the local economy. The ACE initiative is therefore focused on those two things: capacity-building through training and infrastructure development, and marketing.

…eco-tourism by definition takes place mainly outdoors and, in Arviat’s case, on the land far from tourist infrastructure like restaurants and hotels. In fact, for the north, the lack of this kind of infrastructure is part of the attraction.

The infrastructure is mostly of the human kind, since eco-tourism by definition takes place mainly outdoors and, in Arviat’s case, on the land far from tourist infrastructure like restaurants and hotels. In fact, for the north, the lack of this kind of infrastructure is part of the attraction. The ACE initiative has therefore concentrated on providing training to local people in guiding, community hosting, cooking, small boat operating, and a variety of other things that local people, already familiar with the land and culture, will need to be successful tourism operators.

The marketing is taking place through a local tourism coordinator, who is working to put Arviat on the map as an ecotourism destination. Already, tours to Arviat are featured in the catalogues of G Adventures (here), The Great Canadian Travel Company (here and here), and Arctic Kingdom (here, here, and here). While bookings are still low, just having these trips available to be booked is a major step for the community.

The pros and cons of distance

Operating a tourism business in Arviat certainly has its challenges. For one, as you will see if you click through the links in the previous paragraph, tour packages to Arviat are expensive. The reasons for this are no mystery: high transportation costs mean that the cost of everything, the flight to town, the food provided, the hotels, the local transportation, and the wages paid to local guides, hosts, and cooks is significantly higher than the expenses of similar tour packages in southern locations, or in many other countries.

There are few places left in the world where one can sleep on the tundra with nobody else around for 100 miles, and awaken in the middle of a short spring night to the sound of tens of thousands of caribou…

But the isolation and distance that make a trip to Arviat so expensive are the same things that can draw people to the community, to experience a bit of life north of 60, away from the well-beaten tourist tracks. There are few places left in the world where one can sleep on the tundra with nobody else around for 100 miles, and awaken in the middle of a short spring night to the sound of tens of thousands of caribou migrating just outside of your tent.

Exactly how successful the ACE Initiative will be remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the possibility for tourism in Arviat is attracting some attention. In any case, local people are getting the opportunity to make a living from their culture and demonstrate their love of the land to visitors. And that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

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