Loving the polar bears to death

"I thought I better come see the bears because the next time I am in this country they will be all gone."
-- Polar bear tourist in Churchill, Man.

ResearchBlogging.orgEcotourism. Sounds so responsible, or least, non-exploitative. But let's face it: Anyone who flies long-distance to get close to some endangered piece of nature at risk from climate change is doing their bit to push those species that much closer to extinction. A paper published recently in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism tries to quantify the irony. "The carbon cost of polar bear viewing tourism in Churchill, Canada" (Subs req'd) looks at the carbon footprint of the polar-bear viewing industry in which, despite its remote location on the western shores of Hudson Bay, is still the cheapest option for almost everyone to see the species in its natural habitat. Jackie Dawson of the University of Guelph and her co-authors also ask the larger question:

Is there a long term future for tourism in globally peripheral destinations such as the Arctic?

After reviewing the threat facing polar bears from receding ice, toting up the ice-melting emissions associated with getting to Churchill and enjoying the scenery (photo at right from Offbeat Travel) for an average of five days, the authors surveyed and interviewed the tourists. What they found is not surprising, but depressing nonetheless:

Thirty percent of the respondents do not understand that air transportation contributes to climate change, and although 46% of tourists indicated that they would be willing to buy carbon offsets for their holiday transportation emissions, a significant barrier to this is an almost complete absence of knowledge as to what a carbon offset actually is, how the money is used to mitigate against climate change and which companies are reliable.

Of course, this assumes that carbon offsets actually offset carbon emissions, a notion that is subject to much debate. The fact is, the only reliable way to reduce one's travel-related carbon footprint is not to travel. Given the naivete of a large number of ecotourists, that doesn't really matter, it seems. So Dawson et al. do some more math and come up with a suite of offsets and transportation technology shifts that could give Churchill a carbon-neutral polar-bear viewing industry at a cost of just $22 a tourist, each of whom is, on average, responsible for 165 tonnes of CO2 -- about eight times a typical household's annual budget.

Considering that 70% of polar bear viewing tourists indicated that they were willing to pay more for the same polar bear viewing experience than they had in 2007, and the proposed offsetting programs (i.e. "carbon conscious" and "carbon neutral") do not reduce revenues for polar bear viewing operators, the companies should seriously consider the implementation of the program.

If only it was that easy. Globally, air travel only contributes about 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, but it's growing, and carbon-neutral bio-jet-fuel is years away. Is there a future for peripheral tourism? Yes, but only if we're willing to continue to overlook its contribution to climate change.

I am reminded of the reason so many people support the caging of large animals in zoos and aquariums: because they provide a surrogate education opportunity for those who can't afford to see the animals in the wild. The idea is that zoo visitors will leave better informed about our responsibility to wildlife. Does the experiential benefit of flying all the way to Churchill justify the climate costs? Not if this paper's findings are to be believed.

(Incidentally, you can take a 2.5-day train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill, but the track's in rough shape and long delays are common.)
Dawson, J., Stewart, E., Lemelin, H., & Scott, D. (2010). The carbon cost of polar bear viewing tourism in Churchill, Canada Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18 (3), 319-336 DOI: 10.1080/09669580903215147


More like this

From "quantum teleportation" to "Superconducting Super collider", there's nothing like an unusual word or intriguing turn of phrase to draw someone into a science story. Yesterday, the New York Times' lead tech writer Nick Bilton took a shine to "charismatic megafauna," after reading a post on The…
Andrew Bolt is still trying to revive the bogus "Gore is a fat hypocrite" story. His main points are: Gore is fat. And: Here he was, receiving film's highest honour for his smash documentary, in which he warns that within a century the seas will rise up to 6m while monster hurricanes tear through…
The Department of the Interior explains: Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne today announced that he is accepting the recommendation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The listing is…
A new paper to be published next week in Geophysical Research Letters (which really needs a better name) lays out what kind of effort would be required to reduce the impacts of climate change by half. Actually, what it does is conclude that if we reign in our fossil-fuel emissions by 70%,…

Does the article make a comparison with what people already do for vacations? Another holiday weekend is approaching and my neighbors are preparing their RVs -- not the little ones, but the giant homes on wheels. Some RVs will be pulling trailers full of off-road vehicles. Tens of thousands of these will drive to the deserts for three days of motorized fun. Portable generators will be roaring all weekend to keep their televisions, microwaves and lights running. By comparison, I cannot be critical of anyone whose luxury time, money, and travel invests a community like Churchhill in the protection of polar bears (I have a friend who took this trip; she raves about it.)

I've not yet been to Churchill, but I've wanted to go for many years, and the train up there was a significant part of the draw of the place -- I envisioned a Paul Theroux-esque rail journey of contemplation and introspection...

I'm so pleased you enjoyed the photo by Robert Painter and I truly appreciate that you provided a link so that readers could enjoy his polar bear experiences in Churchill

Neala Schwartzberg, editor, offbeattravel.com

Eco-tourism is so watered down the meaning and intent has long been forgotten. The town of Churchill is struggling more than ever because the two tour companies that do 90 percent of the polar bear tours are not local but based out of Winnipeg. The biggest tour company has near fifty employees during bear season but employee only one local full time and a few part time. All the driver/guides with the exception of one local are from somewhere else, these drivers are good people but do not have the connection to the land or the bears like a local does. Carbon offset's are an option but first these "eco-companies" should be responsible to the land and community and animals that fill there bank accounts. The biggest tour company still dumps thousands upon thousands of heavy duty plastic garbage bags full of raw human waste into our landfill site. The bears are free, it's about time those in the business gave back.

By norm nanuk (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Hello everybody! As a person growing up in a heavy 'ECO' Touristic destination such as Argentina, I have seen the damage tourists & outfitters do to the environment and the local economy. We must understand 1st the difference between Adventure Tourism, Nature Tourism, Tourism and Eco Tourism or (I like this one the best) Responsible Travel. The sole fact that you are traveling from Canada to Costa Rica to see Turtles is not Eco Tourism! There are so many factors involved in REAL Ecotourism, and we are still far off being able to travel alone as Eco Tourists. We can start by being more mindful of our actions when we travel and travel responsibly. You can certainly do more Eco Tourism going to visit your grandmom than going to see Polar bears. A visit to your local museum can turn in to Ecotourism. It will all depend on the steps you take to have a good footprint in this Planet. Would you ride your bike or walk? Would you bring you watter bottle? Would you bring your lunch with food from the farmers market? Would you wear organic cotton? Would you buy gifts from the locals or made in China? I say buy Made in China when you are in China.
Yanina Aldao Eco Tourism Consultant

Thank you, Norm and Yanina. I had assumed that the ecotourism would be good for the locals, but I shouldn't have made that assumption.

One other thing, jg, on RVs. There are no doubt plenty of people with RVs who use loads of resources, but it's not so simple as your comment suggests. For instance, we RV (just got back from 2 months out) and full-timed in it for nearly 4 years. Including our RV usage, we use, on average, a little less than the average amount of fuel for people in the USA, and we travel a good deal further than most RVers. Some RVers will run generators for hours, but more the norm nowadays is to use solar panels to recharge your house batteries and an inverter to convert your battery power to AC. And when we use what we consider lots and lots of water in the RV (in other words we usually use far less) it works out to less than 13 gallons a day per person (about 1/5th the USA average). Match that.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 30 Jun 2010 #permalink


Now how do you do if you include the fuel for hauling your house around?