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Story Publication logo March 8, 2024

Environmental Row Over ‘Last Chance Tourism’ in Canada’s Melting Arctic



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Critics say cruise ships scare away the wildlife they come to see, leaving fewer animals to hunt and residents even more dependent on tourism. Image by Berta Vicente Salas/Ruido Photo.

Cruise ships offer crucial income to poverty-hit village of Pond Inlet but opponents say it is vicious cycle

An increase in “last chance tourism” in Canada’s melting Arctic is causing a row between those who warn of the devastation it is causing to the environment and those who rely on income from tourists to survive as hunting becomes increasingly difficult.

Pond Inlet, a village of about 1,600 mostly Inuit people in the territory of Nunavut, received about 3,000 tourists in 2023. Each paid about $15,000 to travel on one of the 25 cruise ships that docked in the village harbour.

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Local authorities say they expect the number to rise further next year. In a town where food costs twice as much as the Canadian average, with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and a median age of 26, cruise ships represent a crucial income source for people who have relied on hunting sea mammals and fishing for subsistence for more than 4,000 years.

Michael Milton, 28, works for Ikaarvik, an organisation through which local young people collaborate with researchers from the south. He said this winter was warmer than usual, the ice was thinner and even experienced hunters were having accidents.

He said: “The weather is more unpredictable than ever, and the increasing number of ships just makes things more complicated.”

Milton said the community was divided. “Some advocate for temporarily stopping this to see what happens to the environment, but others, who rely on this income in the summer, disagree. It’s really hard for me to choose a side. I have mixed emotions; I enjoy interacting with tourists, but I also want to preserve our way of life.”

Opponents of tourism say the ships are part of a vicious cycle; they scare away the wildlife they come to see, meaning there are fewer animals to hunt, and in turn the residents become more dependent on tourism for income.

Prof Jackie Dawson, of the University of Ottawa, who coined the term “last chance tourism”, said: “There’s this idea the landscape is changing … polar bears are shifting and moving. This has attracted a lot of tourists to come to the region. They believe it’s their last chance to see it.”

Pond Inlet received about 3,000 tourists in 2023. Image by Berta Vicente Salas/Ruido Photo.

They may be right; the Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the global average and is predicted to be ice-free in summer by 2050.

Locals say the surge in marine activity is taking a toll on wildlife, particularly narwhals. Karen Nutarak, Pond Inlet’s representative in the legislative assembly of Nunavut, said: “In the past, from the visitors centre, you could just watch the whales and seals down the shore but not any more.”

Nutarak coordinates a theatre group where dozens of locals participate, welcoming visitors with artistic performances. She sees tourism as an opportunity to dispel stereotypes about the Inuit way of life and sustain traditional rituals that are fading away. “Some people think we still live in igloos and that we don’t have electricity,” she said.

Jonathan Pitseolak, a 24-year-old who works at the town archive and serves as a museum guide, said the scarcity of sea mammals forced the community to invest additional time and money in hunting. “You need a job to buy fuel, but it’s like a trap because if you work, you don’t have time to go hunting.”

There is concern about the declining engagement of young people in traditional practices such as hunting. Image by Berta Vicente Salas/Ruido Photo.

The delicate Arctic environment bears the brunt of this increased human activity. Last year, in response to the lobbying efforts of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO), cruise ships were restricted from travelling beyond Pond Inlet in order to mitigate their impact on narwhal routes.

David Qamaniq, the chair of the MHTO, said: “Where there are big boats, there are no mammals. We have no farming, no agriculture here; we need to hunt.”

The Arctic bears the brunt of this increased human activity; shipping has grown by 7% a year over the past decade. The artificial light and underwater noise pollution from ships affect the migration routes of narwhals.

In addition to cruise ships, cargo vessels transporting iron from a nearby mine further compound the problem. Recently, hunters successfully opposed the expansion of that mine.

“A small amount of noise travels in the Arctic much further distances than it does in temperate waters,” said Andrew Dumbrille, an adviser for the NGO Clean Arctic Alliance.

The deputy mayor, Joshua Idlout, acknowledged the positive impact of tourism revenue, such as providing funding for a women’s shelter, but expressed concern about the declining engagement of young people in traditional practices such as hunting.

“They’re connected to the world, but they are losing land skills,” he said. “We have an unforgiving land out there. If you’re not prepared for it, you won’t last very long.”

This story was produced by Ruido and supported by the Pulitzer Center. Additional reporting by Natalie Alcoba.

Este reportaje está disponible en español en France24.

This article was amended on 8 March 2024 to correct Jonathan Pitseolak’s surname.


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