The tourism mirage
Many Nunavut residents know about the phenomenon called the “Arctic mirage,” that visual trick that sunlight creates when it passes through frigid air, making non-existent objects look real to the careless observer.
These optical illusions sometimes fooled explorers like Robert Peary, who duped himself into believing in a thing called “Croker Land,” which consisted only of mist, air and his own hapless delusions.
The Arctic still suffers from numerous mirages, but of a different kind. Among the most persistent is the mirage known as tourism.
For nearly three decades, a long succession of hucksters have touted tourism as a major source of economic opportunity for northern Canada. Much of this nonsense arose in the mid-1980s, when the Government of the Northwest Territories used tourism promotion to justify large outlays of public money on a pavilion at Expo ‘86 in Vancouver and other projects.
To this day, the mirage of tourism still lingers, always on the distant horizon. An early version of the Nunavut Economic Outlook, published shortly after 1999, described tourism as one of the three “pillars” of the territorial economy.
But like everyone else before them, the report’s authors cited no evidence to justify this assertion. That’s because there isn’t any. The available evidence shows no viable tourism “industry” has ever existed in Nunavut or has any reasonable chance of every developing within your lifetime.
Nunavut suffers from the burden of being one of North America’s highest cost destinations. For the price of a one-way ticket between Iqaluit and Ottawa, you can buy an all-inclusive vacation in Cuba or the Dominican Republic, airfare, meals and hotel included.
There are almost no tourist attractions and no one appears to have any plans to develop any. Only a few small businesses and co-ops in the territory are capable of providing tourists with even minimal services. Hospitality workers, such as there are, suffer from little training or experience.
A recent study on cruise ship tourism, reported in this newspaper, found Arctic residents feel they gain little from cruise ship visits.
This is a surprise? It shouldn’t be. The greatest advantage of Arctic cruise ship tourism — for its promoters — is that it keeps people away from Arctic communities. Aboard a ship, the cruise promoter can exercise rigorous control over all aspects of the tour: food quality, sleeping accomodations, entertainment.
In Arctic communities, visitor services — including hotels, coffee shops, restaurants and guiding services — can be notoriously bad, not all the time, but often enough. This means that for a package tour operator, the quality of a tourist’s experience is far more difficult to control when they’re left at the mercy of erratic local operators.
It’s no wonder then, that only cruise ship tourism is growing in the Arctic, from 11 cruises in 2005 to 23 in 2010. But it’s still an activity that contributes little to local economies. In 2008, the Government of Nunavut counted only 2,926 cruise passengers, a paltry number.
In 2008, the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Economic Development disgorged a document called “Nunavut Visitor Exit Survey.” Though much of its content should be viewed with skepticism, this survey did estimate that all visitors to Nunavut, including those small numbers of people who can be classed as real tourists, spent about $24 million.
Of that, visitors shell out about $18.5 million on only two things: airline tickets and cruise ship tickets, $9.4 million to the airlines and $9.1 million to cruise purveyors.
On carvings and art, the kind of stuff people think they can flog to tourists, visitors spent only $682,609 — across the entire territory.
For chump change like this, people are wringing their hands in anxiety? In Nunavut, the economic benefits of tourism are so small you need a microscope to find them. It’s highly unlikely that tourism — whether by air or by sea — can ever deliver the dignity and security that comes with good jobs and real business opportunities.
A tourist is person who travels for pleasure or self-education, spending her own money to pay for such travel. Of the small numbers of people — about 13,000 — who visit the territory each year, only a tiny proportion falls into this category. The territory’s best-known tourist attraction, Auyittuq National Park, attracts only 350 to 500 legitimate tourists each year.
In contast, Yukon, also a high-cost destination, attracts about 300,000 visitors a year. Other Canadian destinations attract millions of tourists.
A person who travels on business or to attend a conference is not a tourist. Neither is a person who visits Nunavut on a short-term employment contract. The evidence shows most out-of-territory visitors to Nunavut fall into this category — people who are ordered to visit the territory by employers, who pay all or most of their expenses.
This, naturally, has led the Nunavut Tourism Association to come up with a new hustle: to tout the territory as a “conference destination.”
But this approach does nothing for small communities. Only Iqaluit is capable of supplying a semblance of what’s required to host even a medium-sized conference. And even in Iqaluit, large events like the G7 finance ministers meeting and the recent Nunavut Mining Symposium have overwhelmed the town’s limited amenities.
At best, tourism in Nunavut is a small-time seasonal activity that provides small numbers of people in a handful of communities with a bit of supplemental income. And most of what the GN spends on tourism should be classed as welfare, not economic development. JB