I have rarely been so far out of the comfort zone as I was at last week’s IPTRN (International Polar Tourism Research Network) conference in Iceland. I don’t mean to be un-generous: the conference, the working title for which was ‘Tourism, People and Protected Areas in Polar Wilderness’, was brilliantly organized and run, included some excellent papers by a lively international cast of delegates, and encompassed a wide range of activities, both academic and not. Most impressive of all was the high level of community engagement built into the conference, one central component of which was its interaction with a variety of stakeholders in its two main locations: the north Icelandic town of Akureyri and the tiny, isolated village of Raufarhöfn, further east. Added to all this was the fact that this was a tourism conference, the timing for which could hardly have been better, and that it provided an ideal opportunity for British- and Icelandic-based ‘Arctic Encounters’ researchers to meet. What was not to like?
However, as I discovered, the conference represented a particular kind of tourism research that made few if any concessions to the humanities. Most of the delegates were social scientists, and most of the early papers moved between qualitative and quantitative forms of analysis that were heavily reliant on data sets and––to my untrained eye––relatively arcane ways of reading them. As I sat there dumbly, vainly thinking of a question to ask, it occurred to me more than once that I might be in the wrong place. But as things progressed, I began to see the value attached to what might glibly be called High Empirical work on the High North (the Deep South as well insofar as the conference focus was on both polar regions), as well as to recognize the critical insights to be gained from measuring and interpreting things––even if, or perhaps especially because, my own discipline is so often obtusely intent on showing the impossibility of measuring and interpreting things, to the general consternation of government sponsors, the tax payers who fund them, and sometimes fellow academics alike.
As it proceeded, the conference also made me think about ‘Arctic Encounters’ itself, and the research findings it had produced during its now almost finished three-year cycle. ‘Findings’ is always a difficult word for humanities scholars––I have squirmed at more than one conference during my career at being asked to list the ‘findings’ or ‘results’ of my work. With our final report due in just a couple of months’ time, what would our project ‘findings’ be? What had we measured, if anything at all, and what would be our ‘results’? Not for the first time, if more clearly than before, it struck me that ‘Arctic Encounters’ was not really about measuring effects and impacts at all––or about measuring attitudes, values and preferences––but about trying to understand the histories, both material and symbolic, that underlie tourism practices in the region, as well as exploring the descriptive vocabularies used to describe and define these practices, and indeed ‘the Arctic’ itself. Clearly––or so I thought––the historical and semantic dimensions of the project would themselves constitute a set of ‘findings’, if hardly the kind of hard statistical information that one might read off against the Likert scale. Correspondingly––or again so I thought–– the ‘Arctic Encounters’ project was unashamedly culturalist in its approach, i.e., primarily interested in the ways in which culture shapes responses to particular places which, like the Arctic, exist as much in imagination as in reality, and in which imagination is constitutive of reality as it is experienced by different people in different places at different times.
Such thoughts weren’t of much help though at the conference––the only one I can ever remember having gone to where I was unable, at least during the academic sessions, to say a single word. Still, I learned a lot: about the continuing tension (both illustrated and instantiated by tourism) between preservation and development; about tourism as an instrument of cultural revitalization and inter-community connection; and about the often mind-boggling complexities surrounding Arctic (also, albeit in a different context, Antarctic) governance regimes. There was much useful discussion surrounding the sustainability of fragile regions; much common sense about the need to combine educational and vocational training; and much solid insight into the work of tour operators as well as individual tourists, which inevitably involves the juggling of seemingly incompatible concerns. And while there were open disagreements and alternative points of view, the delegates were united in supporting the urgent need to protect Arctic/subarctic regions and their diverse inhabitants, with a more specific concern being shown for the paradoxical overcrowding produced by tourism in Iceland, which––like many instances of tourism in Northern locations––tends to be unsustainably concentrated around a relatively small number of attractions and sites. Several delegates pointed to the need for a redistribution of tourists to less crowded areas, while others stressed the equally urgent need for a greater regulation of tourism industries in the region, especially those that fall into the increasingly popular ‘adventure’ genre.
All of this and more significantly added to my understanding, while reconfirming my limited experience, of the Arctic. Still, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that much tourism research on the region effectively confirms what is already known, i.e. that the High North is a target for mass as well as more niche forms of tourism; that its fragile natural-cultural environments are not well placed to withstand this; and that the tourism industries that serve the region are often significantly less regulated than they need to be, which possibly reflects larger issues that are at the heart of Arctic governance itself. What to do about this is a key question of course, but equally important is to understand where all of this comes from: why it is that there are so many tourists pouring into the Arctic, what ‘Arctic’ they believe themselves to be experiencing, and what historical motivations––however dimly recognized––underpin these contemporary forays into what was never unpopulated, though sometimes strategically de-populated, space. ‘Arctic Encounters’ no more has the answer to these questions than any other project of its kind has, but surely any study of tourism in the Arctic needs to ask those supremely awkward Big Questions (why the Arctic? what Arctic?) without which all the empirical research in the world seems strangely insubstantial, however conscientiously it presents its hard facts.