Arctic Tourism: From Canada to Russia

Photo: Quttinirpaaq National Park, Nunavut, Canada / Ansgar Walk

The Arctic Region is one of the last remaining frontiers of mass tourism. Most of the region was virtually unexplored until the 19th century, and the first tourists appeared in the region only in the early 1800’s, mostly individual anglers, hunters and adventurers. The advent of the tourist industry implied a growing interest also for the Arctic Region, especially Alaska and the Scandinavian Arctic, and the development of ship and railway technology first and airlines later helped to establish mass tourism in its most accessible regions. During the latest years, the continuous growth of Arctic tourism has been pushed by the spread of low-cost airlines, unexpensive cruises, stopover policies by airline carriers and – last but not least – climate change, which is making the region more accessible with the melting of ice sea and of permafrost. Still, while some regions are now suffering of overtourism, the overall number of tourists who visit the Arctic region is nowhere comparable to the numbers of some traditional tourism meccas like the Mediterranean region and most Caribbean locations.

According to the Tourism in the Polar Region report of the UNEP, the main targets of Arctic tourism

  1. The mass market, comprised of tourists primarily attracted to sightseeing within the pleasurable surroundings of comfortable transport and accommodations;
  2. The sport fishing and hunting market, with participants who pursue unique fish and game species within a wilderness setting;
  3. The ecotourism market, consisting of tourists who seek to observe wildlife species in their natural habitats, and experience the beauty and solitude of natural areas. These tourists are also concerned with conserving the environment and improving the wellbeing of local people;
  4. The adventure tourism market, providing a sense of personal achievement and exhilaration from meeting challenges and potential perils of outdoor sport activities;
  5. The culture and heritage tourism market, a very distinct market comprised of tourists who either want to experience personal interaction with the lives and traditions of native people, learn more about a historical topic that interests them, or personally experience historic places and artifacts.

The Canadian Arctic includes the three northernmost provinces of Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, as well as Northern Quebec (Nunavik) and Northern Labrador (Nunatsiavut). It is a very large and scant-populated area, with less than 150,000 people – many of them Inuit and other indigenous people – spread on a land as large as most of Europe. Its continental part is covered mostly by tundra and taiga, while the Canadian Archipelago hosts wide glaciers. Its national parks, some of which protected by UNESCO, and the culture of its indigenous populations are some of the main attractions of the region.

Photo: Nunavut, Canada

The Canadian Arctic, on the other hand, is incredibly hard to reach. The road network is very scant, with the great majority of the area lacking connections with the national road network. Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, has been connected to the national road network only in 2012, thanks to a bridge on the Mackenzie River which relieved the city from its reliance to ferries and ice roads. Moreover, no location is the Canadian Arctic has a direct railway connection with the rest of the country, with the only partial exception being Schefferville in Quebec, just south of Nunavik. Therefore, most locations can be reached only by sea, plane, or trekking.

This helps to explain why Canada’s share in overall Arctic tourism is limited. Around 8.3 million tourists visit the Arctic region annually, according to 2013 statistics, but the Canadian Arctic – namely Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador) – was visited by just more than 100,000 people, while Finnish Lapland and the Norwegian region of Finnmark attracted more than 2 million tourists each, Swedish Norrbotten attracted 1,7 million people and nearby Alaska was visited by around 1,6 million people.

These data were taken when Iceland’s tourism boom had just started, but it should be said that no Canadian Arctic province has experienced a tourism boom comparable to that of Iceland so far. While Iceland can rely on a strategic position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, allowing it to become a popular destination for cruises and stopovers between Europe and North America, and Greenland is on the way to become the next Iceland, most of the Canadian Arctic is likely to stay outside the reach of mass tourism at least for the next few years.

Photo: Gullfoss, an iconic waterfall of Iceland / Pierre-Selim Huard.

The only partial exception is Churchill, whose seasonal polar bear migrations and whose relative accessibility makes it a favourite spot for ecotourists. Churchill, nevertheless, is sub-Arctic rather than outright Arctic and it is somehow excluded from Arctic tourism. Still, tourist flows towards Arctic Canada are on the increase. Many tour operators offering tours in Canada now include also some tours in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Places like the Nahanni National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Yukon’s Klondike region, renowned in popular culture as the birthplace of Scrooge McDuck’s fortunes, are now a good and fairly accessible alternative to the more known Banff and Jasper National Parks. While no place is currently as known among international tourists as Lake Louise, somehow known even to those people who wouldn’t be able to name it or locate it on the map, the popularity of the region is increasing often dramatically. In 2018, for instance, Yukon experienced around 323,000 overnight tourists, most of which from the nearby United States (Alaska borders the region).

Photo: Lake Louise

The difference with the stats published just ten years before is self-evident. The climate change, which is causing the melting of several glaciers in more southern locations, will definitely increase the attractivity of Yukon and the Northwest Territories in the next years.

The most remote province is definitely Nunavut, which is way outside the reach of the road and railway network and whose only connections with the “mainland” are by plane. Moreover, the prices of a flight to Nunavut makes it out of reach for most people or, at least, not competitive for those travellers who do not have a specific interest for the region. It’s not surprising that, in spite of its still alive Inuit culture (Nunavut was separated from the Northwest Territories as a self-governing Inuit region) and some natural attractions which speak for themselves to the lovers of glaciers and Arctic fauna, only a few tens of thousands of people visit Nunavut each year. Still, during the latest year, we have been experiencing a steady increase of expedition cruises and trekking tours on the biggest islands. The prices are still rather high (it’s very difficult to find a cruise or a trekking tour in Nunavut for less than £5,000), but Nunavut is likely to be a new frontier of Arctic travels after Greenland.

Russian Arctic is somehow comparable to the Canadian Arctic for its dimensions and its being mostly outside the reach of mass tourism, but it also presents some peculiarities. The westernmost region, including Karelia and the Kola Peninsula, is easily accessible: the railway network goes as far as Murmansk, well above the Arctic Circle, and passes through or nearby some of the most interesting spots of the region. It should be remarked that this region presents not only natural sites, but also a number of cultural heritage sites like the Solovetsky Islands, a UNESCO-protected site renowned for its monastery and as the location of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece Gulag Archipelago, and the Kizhi Island on the Lake Onego.

Photo: Kizhi Wooden Architecture Ensemble

The accessibility of the Komi Republic, on the Polar Urals, is just slightly lower, while the Nenets country in Western Siberia, inhabited by one of the last remaining nomadic people in the world, is probably the most accessible location in the Siberian Arctic: Salekhard, the starting point from any tour there, can be reached both by train (although with a long trip) and by plane. Most of the Siberian Arctic and even some regions of the European Russian Arctic, on the other hand, are rather difficult to get to. Recent infrastructural improvements, including the completion of the Amur – Yakutsk Mainline, have improved the accessibility of Yakutia, also hosting a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the Lena Pillars).

Photo: The Lena Pillars

Still, the overall remoteness of the region limits the accessibility of the region from most of the world, with the exception of Eastern Asia. The Russian Arctic National Park, including the Franz Joseph Land, the Victoria Island and the northernmost part of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, including part of the largest glacier in Europe (the Severny Island Ice Cap), can be visited on expeditionary cruises leaving from Murmansk from June to September, since the sea is covered by ice for most of the year and icebergs are common year-round. The access to the Wrangel Island, one of the most interesting locations in the world for the study of Arctic fauna, is currently restricted for conservational reasons, and the only way to visit it is through expeditionary boats which are as expensive as the cruises in Nunavut.

The development of tourism in the Russian Arctic is fairly recent: in the early 2000s, for instance, only a few thousands of international tourists visited the Russian Arctic. In the past, one of the main hindrances to incoming tourism were visa requirements: EU tourists, for instance, could visit Scandinavia and Iceland just with their own ID documents, while the US (Alaska) and Canada do not require a visa but just an electronic travel authorisation. Therefore, while people wishing to visit Russian cultural sites or to watch events like the 2018 World Cup still flocked to places like Moscow or St Petersburg, the Russian Arctic was mostly outside the radars of Arctic travellers, with the partial exception of ecotourists and cultural tourists. The gradual introduction of electronic visas (e-Visas), valid for the entire national territory since 1st August 2023. streamlined the visa procedures for the citizens of 56 countries, including China, India, Iran and all EU countries. But, at the moment, the main hindrance to the growth of tourism is not bureaucracy, but the ongoing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West. A future thaw may lead to an increase of international tourism to Russia well above the pre-pandemic/pre-2022 levels. In the meanwhile, the operators should implement a politics aimed at attracting international tourists from those Countries which don’t apply sanctions – it should be remarked that, even before the pandemics, most international tourists visiting Russia came from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) Countries and China - and for those tourists who are specifically interested in the “Russian Arctic”, who cannot be easily swayed towards other Arctic regions or other destinations in Russia.

What are the perspectives for the development of tourism in the Arctic region? While building tourism and transport infrastructures requires time, and a massive infrastructure building may be inconvenient for the preservation of the local natural environment (and often for the tourist experience itself), the geographic isolation of many Arctic regions and the lack of massive infrastructures are not necessarily a drawback. Al Ries, one of the most prominent American marketers, mentioned the Law of Candor among what he called “the 22 immutable laws of marketing”: when you admit a negative, the prospect will give you a positive. This implies, for instance, that a region which is promoted as “remote” and “isolated” (two negative traits) can also be promoted as “wild”, “unspoilt” and “free of mass tourism” (three positive traits, especially for such locations), where indigenous cultures are still alive and tourists are so rare that they are treated as guests, rather than tourists And this notwithstanding the sense of achievement some travellers experience in reaching such faraway locations, definitely a main drive of Arctic tourism. And this notwithstanding the sense of achievement some travellers experience in reaching such faraway locations, definitely a main drive of Arctic tourism.

Photo: Nuuk. It is the capital of Greenland / Oliver Schauf.

Some regions and tour operators already play with the Law of Candor to promote remote locations in the Arctic. Aventures Inuit, an agency offering guided tours in the remote Nunavik region, describes it as a place “the size of France, with no highways, no shopping malls, and no city skyscrapers” where “there are no name brand hotels, no condos, and no time share resorts boasting swimming pools”. But at the same time, “instead of sitting down to watch a National Geographic TV special about nature and culture, you’ll be experiencing it yourself". Visit Greenland, Greenland’s official tourism website, even created a page to explain “why Greenland may not be for you”, where some negatives are clearly turned into positives while shunning the door to the mass market. A policy aimed at attracting the ecotourism market, the adventure tourism market and the culture and heritage tourism market is the best compromise to develop these regions without turning them into tourist traps, while being mindful to avoid environmentally damaging practices like icebreaker tours to the North Pole.

Giuseppe Cappelluti

Born in Italy, he lived and worked in five countries (Estonia, Russia, Turkey and Northern Ireland, apart from his native Italy). He holds a Master Degree in Foreign Languages in the University of Bergamo, Italy, and a 1st-level university master in International Business Relations Italy-Russia. His favourite hobby is travelling, with a penchant for Russia, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa. Writes for “Eurasia”