One polar bear can repeatedly generate revenue for a local community when visitors view it over the span of its lifetime. In a sense, the same polar bear can be ‘sold’ more than once and to more than one person. Increasingly, scientific studies have discussed such non-consumptive wildlife viewing as a preferred alternative to consumptive activities, not only for its benefits to the animals of interest, but also to the local communities. For instance, one study found that an individual reef shark can generate about USD $1.9 million through its lifetime for the tourism industry in Palau of the South Pacific. In stark contrast, a dead reef shark killed for commercial trade would bring only about USD $108. Similarly, another study found that a living elephant is worth more than $1.6 million in ecotourism opportunities, generating 76 times more revenue than a dead one.

Tourist opportunities involving live polar bears in the Arctic have also been lucrative, even though only three destinations regularly hosted polar bear tourism in 2018. The three three destinations were: Churchill in Canada, Svalbard in Norway and Kaktovik in the US. All of these destinations have experienced growing demand for opportunities to view polar bears.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenThe expedition ship MS Origo pioneered modern polar bear tourism in Svalbard in the 1990s.

Longyearbyen is the northernmost city in the world, located on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, at 78°13′ N. The Svalbard Treaty, signed in 1920, recognises Norwegian sovereignty and laws governing the archipelago. Before the hunting ban of 1973, people’s main interest in Svalbard’s polar bears was to kill as many of them as possible for the skin trade.

After two decades of recovery the number of polar bears grew, and the area became more attractive to tourists. Whereas trophy hunting expeditions from small ships had ended with the hunting ban, by the mid-1990s the same types of ships hosted expeditions for watching and photographing polar bears. Unlike in Churchill, polar bears rarely approach human settlements in Svalbard, but expedition ships provide a safe and comfortable way to observe polar bears in winter, summer and autumn.

The advantage of ice-strengthened expedition ships is their ability to move along the ice edge or into the drifting pack ice at 80° N or farther north, where polar bears hunt for seals. Accessing polar bears in this kind of habitat is usually very difficult in other parts of the Arctic because of logistical challenges, or because, in summer and autumn, polar bears in some areas are on land. Given that polar bears can be curious, some of them will approach a ship and provide excellent wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities. In addition to polar bears, seals, walrus, whales and thousands of sea birds, either along the ice edge or surrounded by stunning mountains and glaciers of Svalbard, complete the Arctic experience.

Small expedition ships in Svalbard usually take 12 clients, medium-sized ships can carry around 50 visitors, and bigger ships can handle 100–300 guests. The number of expedition ships out of Svalbard has increased from 14 ships carrying a total of 3,417 guests in 2001 to 35 ships carrying 12,519 guests in 2014. Furthermore, 23 overseas cruise ships carried 35,154 guests in 2014. Therefore, the total number of tourists on expedition and cruise ships in Svalbard was more than 47,500 people during the summer and autumn months of 2014. Most of the trips lasted three to ten days, or sometimes longer.

The winter months of March and April are also busy with guided snowmobile trips from Longyearbyen. These trips, usually toward Tempelfjorden, Billefjorden or Mohnbukta, visit glaciers and ideally provide opportunities to observe polar bears on the frozen fjord ice. In 2014, a total of 7,010 tourists booked winter trips and at least one night in one of the hotels in town. In 2018 Longyearbyen had eight hotels offering 439 rooms and 952 beds.

The city of Longyearbyen was originally founded on coal mining. After mining activity declined, the new economic focal points became tourism and science. With about 2,150 citizens in Longyearbyen, tourism is extremely important there. In 2017, hotel revenue in Longyearbyen was NOK 133.6 million, equal to USD $16.2 million, 73.5% of which came from tourism. No statistics feature the revenue from ship-based expeditions, and very few of the ship operators were based locally in Svalbard. However, with prices ranging from USD $6,000–12,000 per client for an eight-to-ten-day ship expedition in 2016, the revenue from international ship operators was at least USD $100 million.

Most of the local benefit from ship expeditions comes from clients on the smaller vessels who may spend significant amounts of money in local shops, hotels, restaurants and other service providers in Longyearbyen. Although no good estimates recount the local annual value of tourism to Svalbard, there is no doubt that tourism has become a cornerstone of the community of Longyearbyen.

Of all areas in the Arctic, none receives more tourists looking to experience and photograph polar bears than Svalbard. With its great landscape, northern location and complete ban on polar bear hunting, Svalbard is very attractive for wilderness-seeking people. One issue the community must deal with is defining the number of tourists who can visit the archipelago each year before it feels too crowded, and nature and wildlife begin to suffer.

The Town of Churchill is located in the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation area. Every autumn polar bears congregate along the shore near Churchill while they await the Hudson Bay sea ice freeze-up that allows them to begin seal hunting.

Polar bear tourism in Churchill evolved during the 1970s. Photographers, journalists and filmmakers published images, articles and films that increasingly awakened a public interest in polar bears. Churchill successfully marketed its unique relationship with local polar bears, mainly to visitors from North America. The visitors wanted to engage with Arctic nature and wildlife in a more intimate and natural way than they could at a zoo.

Churchill’s polar bear tourism industry grew quickly, and by 1985 tour operators agreed to ensure that the industry did not disturb the bears. For example, some were afraid that large numbers of tourists would stress the polar bears during periods of starvation. Tour operators thus cautiously maintained low numbers of tourists to both protect the bears and prevent reductions in the visitors’ quality of the wilderness experience, such as would occur if many vehicles gathered around the same polar bear. It was in the tour operators’ long-term interest to expand slowly to avoid negative impacts to the bears and visitors.

Since the 1990s, polar bear tourism has contributed millions of Canadian dollars each year to Churchill’s local economy via its tour operators, hotels, restaurants and shops. A study in 2011 estimated the total annual value from polar bear viewing in Churchill was CAD $7.2 million. In contrast, the study estimated the economic value of trophy hunting for all of Canada that year was CAD $1.3 million, and the value of regular hunting for skin and meat was estimated as CAD $0.6 million. Therefore, the economic value of the polar bear tourism was about 550% higher than that of all Canadian polar bear hunting for the same period.

In the last few decades polar bears have used the barrier islands and sand spits around Kaktovik of Barter Island for resting and feeding, and as a stopover until winter sea ice forms in November. Before the 1980s, when there was more summer sea ice along the shores of the Southern Beaufort Sea, polar bears concentrating along the coast of Barter Island were rare to see. Nowadays there is less sea ice, and many polar bears are attracted to the leftovers on Kaktovik’s shores from subsistence whaling activity that concludes in autumn.

The citizens of Kaktovik have lived with polar bears in relative harmony. Since the late 1980s polar bears were only occasionally killed around the settlement. No commercial incentives to kill a polar bear exist in Kaktovik, and the local citizens generally do not regard polar bears as a meat source. Accordingly, the value of a live polar bear is much higher than that of a dead one, and the community of Kaktovik welcomes tourists to use their local-guide-operated small boats for observing and photographing bears.

Boat-based polar bear viewing started in Kaktovik around 2008 to guide film crews, photographers and tourists who wanted to experience the polar bears aggregating nearby. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has monitored this activity since implementing a permit system to regulate commercial polar bear guiding in 2010. All boat operators have to follow some guidelines while conducting commercial activities. In 2016, six licenced guides operated seven boats.

Polar bear viewing boat in Kaktovik, September 2017

Kaktovik provides small-scale ecotourism with great polar bear viewing opportunities that benefit the community. According to tourism statistics, the number of polar bear tourists in Kaktovik increased from 260 viewers in 2011 to 2,313 viewers in 2016, including both visitors and guides. Together with accommodation at the two small hotels in Kaktovik, the community received around USD $1,495,000 in 2016 from polar-bear-viewing tourism (se the Polar Bears & Humans book for more details). That entirely local revenue was about 50% higher than the local revenue from all polar bear trophy hunting in Canada the same year.

Kaktovik has shown the potential for successful small-scale ecotourism in Arctic settlements. Other native settlements in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia could also benefit from polar-bear-viewing tourism, without huge investments or significant negative impacts on traditional life and culture. Each settlement in the Arctic has its own unique qualities and could be attractive to smaller groups of visitors.

Managing small-scale ecotourism
Most native settlements in Canada, Greenland, the US and Russia do not want to deal with large numbers of tourists, like those visiting Svalbard and Churchill. Even if successfully developed and delivering high economic value, such a high degree of tourism would not fit into the daily lives of many in Arctic settlements. However, small-scale ecotourism, as in the settlement of Kaktovik, could be a better model for establishing new opportunities for polar-bear-viewing tourism in the Arctic.

Sustainable tourism, of which ecotourism is a part, has three main aspects. It is environmentally friendly, meaning the activities offered minimise any damage to the environment and, ideally, try to benefit the environment through protection and conservation. Sustainable tourism is also culturally sensitive, seeking to benefit and respect – not harm – social and cultural life in visited communities. Last, it is economically responsible, in that it does not simply begin and then rapidly die away because of bad business practices; it continually contributes to the economic well-being of the local community.

Ecotourism is a sector of tourism focused on nature-oriented travel and the principles of sustainability. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.’ Accordingly, ecotourism does not only focus on viewing animals and conservation, but it should also have a positive impact on local communities.

Ecotourism should minimise harmful physical, social and psychological impacts, both to the animals observed and the local settlements hosting tourist activities. Small groups, short tourist seasons, and operators using local and certified guides help to implement the low-impact philosophy. All visitors should be educated during the visit to build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.

Ecotourism is only possible if the hosting local settlement has a positive attitude toward the activity. Efforts should be taken to provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts, in order to maintain good relationships. For example, a large group of tourists invading a small settlement is usually not a positive experience if it has not been arranged and agreed upon in advance. Smaller groups of tourists typically merge more easily with a host settlement. Limiting the tourist season to a few weeks, like they do in Kaktovik, can also be important for maintaining ‘normal life’ most of the year.

The best way to please a host settlement is to generate financial benefits for both the private tourist companies and local people. Transport operators, guides, hotels, restaurants and shops can benefit directly from tourist activity, whether through permanent or seasonal jobs. This can have a positive effect on individuals and families involved in the industry. However, those who are not involved in tourism may only be exposed to the negative effects and envy their neighbours earning money from the industry. Implementing tourist tax and visitor fees may be the best way to resolve such conflict.

Small-scale ecotourism should also produce direct financial benefits for conservation activities in the area. Small groups with few visitors may limit the potential for collecting money for conservation, but polar-bear-viewing trips are generally quite expensive and attract people with higher incomes than do typical mass-tourist destinations. Together, international tour companies and donations from visitors should be able to support local conservation projects or polar bear safety patrols. Tourists are usually willing to support local conservation initiatives, as long as they are invited to participate in them.

All activities in remote settlements with vulnerable ecosystems, wildlife and culture should be designed and operated with low-impact facilities and infrastructure. Arctic settlements are not good areas for irreversible construction, large hotels or activities associated with high levels of pollution. The footprint from small- scale ecotourism should be as small as possible and include visitors respecting the rights and spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people and local partners. If well-conducted, small-scale ecotourism may become important for more remote Arctic settlements in the near future.

Learn more about polar bears
The information on this webpage is from Chapter 4.5 in the Polar Bears & Humans book. If you want to learn more about polar bears and conservation, order a copy of the book, and support the Polar Bears & Humans project.