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About a Bear: Wildlife Tourism in the Polar North

Dr Lizanne Henderson, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow

article published in The Geographer (Winter 2018)


Ursus maritimus, symbolic of the North and, in recent years, an icon of anthropogenic climate change. Leading conservation NGOs liberally use charismatic megafauna to attract funding and the polar bear is frequently the go-to candidate for Arctic campaigns. Arctic tour operators are also not averse to using Nanuq to attract clientele; the bear elicits feelings of awe and is, for most wildlife-seekers, a ‘bucket-list’ animal. It is easy to explain why the polar bear has become the ‘poster child’ for global warming, for it gives a ‘face’ to complex scientific issues. What is harder to assess is how effective the – mostly negative – images of the bear have actually been? And at what expense to other species that are similarly under threat, not to mention the human beings who live in the Arctic. While the sight of emaciated bears struggling on melting ice appeal to our emotions do these depictions actually encourage understanding about Arctic conservation? The jury is out on that question.

Radio Collared Bear, Svalbard
Radio Collared Bear, Svalbard ©padeapix

Tourists have been visiting parts of the Arctic since the nineteenth century. From the 1880s steamers sailed to Svalbard offering visitors the chance to experience the Midnight Sun, while some offered passengers the opportunity to hunt wildlife, including bears. Today, Svalbard is a prime location for Arctic cruising, generally viewed within the industry as a success story and a model to follow. With ever-increasing media attention given to the Arctic, especially post-2000, some tour operators have plugged so-called ‘last chance tourism’ (vacationing in regions under threat or are home to attractions such as endangered species). Needless to say, the Arctic is a big place and so tourism growth is uneven, mainly concentrated around more accessible areas, such as Scandinavia and Alaska, which can collectively attract over 2 million visitors annually, while the Canadian territory Nunavut brings in only 15,000 per year. One to watch is Greenland, which has been heavily investing in developing its infrastructure – proposals are currently under discussion for three new airports and several harbours – though some have warned there has been inadequate discussion about tourism impacts and carrying capacity.

Reduction of sea ice has been a boon for cruise ship tourism – the first ever luxury liner Crystal Serenity took over a thousand guests on a 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage in 2016 – but is less welcomed by the bears who depend upon the ice to hunt. There have been notable increases in bear-human conflict for local people and also within the tourism sector. In Greenland in 2014, twelve bears were shot by locals in self-defense, the highest figure ever recorded, while in Svalbard in 2018, a bear was killed after it injured a guard helping tourists off the cruise ship MS Bremen.

Wildlife tourism – which can be loosely defined as travel to destinations in order to observe or interact with animals within their natural environment or in captivity – is globally on the rise, promoted as an economic regenerator that supports local communities as well as aiding in conservation. Wildlife encounters via tourism inevitably carry some level of impact, though it is not an easy thing to measure. There are guidelines available, such as AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) whose members are obligated to operate in accordance with national and international law and to observe considerate conduct when encountering polar bears and other wildlife. Reputable tour companies will observe such guidelines, minimizing stressors to the animal, but in wilderness areas this is often based on a trust system.

Watching Bears at Sallyhamna, Svalbard ©padeapix
Watching Bears at Sallyhamna, Svalbard ©padeapix

The ‘polar bear capital of the world’, Churchill (Kuugjuaq), Manitoba, situated on the western edge of Canada’s Hudson Bay, attracts 10,000 visitors every autumn for guaranteed sightings of the bears as they wait for the sea ice to freeze. Tourist impact is minimized by using specially designed tundra vehicles for ‘up-close and personal’ encounters. While the carbon footprint for getting to Churchill is high – there are no roads and so most arrive by airplane or train – the town has started to off-set these emissions by implementing carbon-neutral programs and offering eco-friendly accommodation. While Churchill is making concerted efforts to promote responsible wildlife tourism, elsewhere the picture is less clear. Kaktovik, Alaska, for instance, which has witnessed an overall decrease in polar bear numbers but an extension in the time bears spend near the town due to delayed sea ice, is experiencing a dramatic rise in tourists. Permits for commercial viewing of bears (issued by USFWS) rose from 1 to 19 between 2010 and 2016, while the annual number of people observing the bears went from around 50 to 2,500. Unscrupulous practices, such as attracting bears with food from the back of tour boats or approaching the bears too closely, have been reported.

Before becoming too cynical, there are positive aspects to wildlife tourism ventures; employment and income generation, increased protection for threatened species or fragile landscapes through private or government funding, the creation of national parks and nature reserves, educational benefits and awareness-raising, not to mention the inestimable pleasure spending time in the presence of wild animals and untamed landscapes bring.

Guiding in Greenland with Adventure Canada ©padeapix
Guiding in Greenland with Adventure Canada ©padeapix

With over twenty years experience working as resource staff with tour company Adventure Canada I have been privileged to see polar bears in the wild and observe tourist responses to these magnificent creatures. My involvement as a guide has led me to wonder what tourists actually take away with them from wildlife encounters? Can wildlife tourism change attitudes after the trip has ended, or have any lasting behavioural impacts on the participants? My current research project, Picturing Polar Bears: Tourism, Climate Change and Environmental Education: Impacts and Perceptions in Arctic Expeditionary Travel, asks, do wildlife encounters leave a social or environmental legacy? Is it possible that responsible Arctic tourism could play a role in decelerating global warming? For the bear, and all our sakes, let us hope so.

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1 Comment

kamrul hasan
kamrul hasan
Dec 01, 2022

Lovely reading

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