Northern adventures
Slow growth rates point to the difficulty in drawing tourists North

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

NNSL (Aug 16/99) - Ecotourism -- the practice of non-consumptive wilderness venturing -- as an industry has been growing steadily worldwide for three decades.

As people grow more aware of man's effects on the environment, so has there been an increased interest in visiting natural wilderness areas.

With such vast areas of pristine wilderness still currently existing in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, one might think that the two territories would have a leg up on the ecotourism market compared to any other area in the world.

Page Burke, a staff naturalist with Bathurst Inlet Lodge and past member with the Nunavut Tourism Board, thinks that the ecotourism market in the North could be doing better.

"I think it's been steady here," Burke said. "On the world stage it's been increasing, but in Nunavut and the NWT it appears to be growing slowly. We're not able to keep up with the growth on a world scale.

"I think it has to do with costs. You can go from Winnipeg or Toronto to almost anywhere in the world for two, three weeks for the same cost it would give you a week in the North.

"It's not just the cost of travelling in the North, but travelling from a southern hub to a Northern drop off -- like in Yellowknife -- is another significant cost. It's expensive to do business in the North. Food, fuel and getting your clients up here, it all adds up."

Robin Riley, director of parks and tourism with Renewable Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development, admits that tourism growth in the North has been slow.

"Part of the problem is the long lead-time it takes for people to decide to come up here," Riley said. "It takes a visitor to the North two years on average to consider making a trip here."

According to Riley, the Western Arctic also suffers from a perception problem compared to more famous destinations like the Yukon and the High Arctic.

"Historically, there has always been an impression of the Yukon and an impression of the Arctic, but not so much the Western Arctic," Riley said. "What we have to do is promote an image. We don't have the mountains or the polar bears, so we have to find that image, like the Mackenzie for instance."

According to the 1998 NWT Visitor Exit Survey, tourism in the NWT has been lagging considerably behind compared to the other provinces and territories.

Alberta's tourism growth rate grew 18 per cent from the previous year and the Yukon grew by 12 per cent, while the NWT is currently 3.25 per cent behind the national average.

Other facts listed in the Exit Survey shows that visitors to the North are typically educated (48 per cent went to university) and are, by far and large, middle-aged males who have left the family at home.

"Not too many families with kids come to visit," Riley said. "This isn't Disney World. One market were not really in is the Ślet's do it for the kids.'"

"The market is mainly for single men and couples where money is not really an issue.

"What's important to tourists coming here is not so much the service, but the experience of a different place. They want to have story to take back with them. The margin that we can only play with is authenticity. We cannot compete with luxury and discount prices."

Tom Faess, owner of Great Canadian Ecoventures in Yellowknife, says his business is in fact growing at a strong rate.

"My customer bookings have increased 30 to 40 per cent a year," Faess said. "It's flourishing right now. We've gone from 50 to 60 clients in the 1980s to 170 annually over the last couple of years."

Faess also dismissed the term "ecotourism" as a myth.

"Ecotourism is more applicable to a lifestyle than a market," Faess said.

"When we created Great Canadian Ecoventures, we thought that there was an ecotourist market. However, we discovered early on in the game that ecotourism was really the method of operation.

"A lot of people believe in those principals, but I don't see it in the field. There's got to be a balance between not disturbing the wildlife and getting a good photograph.

"What we do have is operators that do or do not practise a high level of environmental ethic in their field operations."

Whether ecotourism or outdoor adventure tourism prospers in the North or not, the onus is still on the cash needed to encourage it to grow.

"The government is spending less money on tourism," Riley said. "Has this effected tourism growth? Probably yes, but is tourism still rising -- yes."