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On Land and Water, Ulukhaktok Welcomes Luxury Cruiseliner

Opportunity and risk come as a package deal as tickets to the Northwest Passage go up for sale. While critics decry the high-end travelers making their way North, their hosts offer another take.

Written by Elaine Anselmi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The 400-person community of Ulukhaktok sits in Queen’s Bay, off the western coast of Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories. Elaine Anselmi

ULUKHAKTOK, Canada – The turquoise building housing the Ulukhaktok Arts Centre overlooks the dark waters of Queen’s Bay on the western edge of Victoria Island. Most days, artists make use of the space to stamp out colorful prints or weave elaborate headbands out of muskox hair. A few shelves at the front of the center display the items up for sale.

But in late August, the center was emptied. Horn carvings, colorful prints and handmade mittens and zipper pulls were packed into boxes and loaded on to the back of four-wheelers and trucks for a trip of less than a mile up a gravel hill to the community hall where there was more space to lay out the goods.

Ulukhaktok, a community of 400 people, was expecting an unprecedented tourist boom. On August 26, the Crystal Serenity – the much publicized 1,000-passenger cruise ship – dropped anchor off the coastal community, the first Canadian stop on its notable Arctic journey. That night, the passengers cleared Canadian customs, while community members were shuttled on board to welcome them with a traditional drum dance performance.

The next day, a marathon 11-hour visit began with passengers coming ashore in groups of 150 every two hours. The steady stream started as soon as the sun crested the red bare hills that enclose the community and it didn’t let up until bright red streaks washed the sky and the sun dipped behind a trio of hills separating the bay from the Amundsen Gulf.

The Crystal Serenity sits at the mouth of Queen’s Bay as passengers are shuttled to shore in black Zodiacs. (Elaine Anselmi)

The Crystal Serenity sits at the mouth of Queen’s Bay as passengers are shuttled to shore in black Zodiacs. (Elaine Anselmi)

Inside the community hall, tourists wearing red parkas picked over muskox horns carved into geese with delicate beaks and hats trimmed with rabbit fur. But whale and sealskin products weren’t included in the offering; the artists had been warned such things wouldn’t make it past U.S. customs.

By the end of the day, the art center brought in more than C$36,000 ($28,000), double the revenue generated by tourists on smaller expeditions the previous summer, said arts center manager Robbie Inuktalik. And this didn’t include the money made by community members who sold arts and crafts independently.

“With expedition cruise ships, which we’ve been getting for a number of years in Ulukhaktok, normally we’re the end, so they’ve already gone to places like Cape Dorset, Pond Inlet, Cambridge Bay,” said Anne Kokko, tourism development officer for the Western Arctic. Art styles differ among regions, but passenger spending tends to trail off toward the end of the trip.

With the Crystal Serenity’s course routed in Ulukhaktok’s favor, the community pulled out all the stops. The night before the passengers came ashore, it was the chance for drumming and dancing that had people dressed in fur-lined mukluks and parkas, tucked under bright orange life jackets, transiting to the ship in Zodiacs.

“It’s very exciting to show how we live here,” said Susie Malgokak, a central Arctic-style dancer, as she waited for her ride. “And see, how the young and old and they’re all together, planning on performing for the people. That is so good.”

Concerns Abound

The Crystal Serenity’s 32-day voyage from Seward, Alaska to New York City, via the Northwest Passage and Greenland, has been a big deal, garnering significant media coverage and opinions. Many condemn it, for environmental reasons or the risk it poses for passengers and the communities it visits.

There is a cost. The massive vessel – as well as the icebreaker guiding it, the helicopters and Zodiacs – produce a significant carbon footprint, generate noise and may disrupt wildlife migrations. A 2015 report on shipping in the Northwest Passage and Beaufort Sea lists these and other potential impacts of the region’s growing marine traffic. And should the ship become grounded or meet heavy ice, there’s the risk of an oil spill – a major concern for communities that live off the land and water.

For its part, Crystal Cruises hired icebreaker escort and opted for a costlier, low-sulfur fuel to limit emissions. But this is not mandatory for all ships passing through the Northwest Passage.

On top of that, six Canadian Coast Guard vessels were working in the Arctic during the voyage, constantly monitoring the Crystal Serenity and other vessels in Canadian waters.

Consultation to Continue

For those living in Ulukhaktok, it had been a long haul to get here. Plans for the Crystal Serenity’s transit have been in the works since 2014. Kokko says it was the expedition company contracted by Crystal Cruises that reached out to her initially, realizing that this voyage would be a big deal.

“They said, ‘Hey, we have potentially a ship that wants to come, it would be huge. It’s huge news. We don’t even want to say the name of the line because it’ll just freak people out. We just want to come have a meeting in the community’,” she said. “So they came to me, we put them in contact with the community – the hamlet. We translated things into the local language, made sure everyone was invited and they came up [to visit].”

An Ulukhaktok carver gives passengers from the Crystal Serenity a look at the inside of a muskox horn he works into a slender bird. (Elaine Anselmi)

An Ulukhaktok carver gives passengers from the Crystal Serenity a look at the inside of a muskox horn he works into a slender bird. (Elaine Anselmi)

The community and Crystal Cruises worked together to develop the cultural program for the passengers. Each on-shore guest was treated to fresh bannock, directed by local guides and had access to arts and craft demonstrators throughout the day. The cost of all the materials for the shore set-up and wages were covered by Crystal, said Judi Wall, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer. The company also donated supplies to the school and C$2,000 ($1,550) to the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment for its children’s Christmas gift drive.

But not all ships are required to undertake such consultations. On August 29, three days after the Crystal Serenity arrived in Ulukhaktok, a French luxury cruise ship, L’Austral, carrying about 250 passengers, was set to make port as well. The hamlet learned about the visit from the territory’s tourism department, after the company registered to enter Canadian waters.

“They’re supposed to notify, but that doesn’t always happen,” said Wall. “They’re wandering around, taking pictures, peeking in windows of the school … it does disrupt our lives.”

The neighboring government of Nunavut has plans for reining in the growing industry. In June, it tabled the Nunavut Marine Tourism Management Plan, outlining new rules and regulations, including codes of conduct for both operators and visitors, as well as a coordinated approach to environmental protection.

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation may develop a similar policy for its region, which includes Ulukhaktok and the Northwest Territories’ coastal communities, said Jackie Challis, a project coordinator with the Inuvialuit Community Economic Development Organization. But the strategy could take up to two years to establish because it requires extensive community consultations.

Crystal, on the other hand, are already selling tickets for its 2017 cruise through the Northwest Passage, and it will repeat the consultation process, said Kokko.

“From our government’s perspective, we look to our communities to say what they want to happen in the community and what they don’t want,” she said. “We take our lead from the community.”

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