Rural Alaska

Tiny Alaska village experiences a tourism boom focused on polar bears

Polar bears congregate around a bowhead whale carcass on the beach in Kaktovik, Alaska on Sept 7, 2012. (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News)

A tiny Alaska Native village has experienced a boom in tourism in recent years as polar bears spend more time on land than on diminishing Arctic sea ice.

More than 2,000 people visited the northern Alaska village of Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea last year to see polar bears in the wild, Alaska's Energy Desk reported Monday.

The far north community is located on north shore of Barter Island on the Beaufort Sea coast in an area where rapid global warming has sped up the movement of sea ice, the primary habitat of polar bears. As ice has receded to deep water beyond the continental shelf, more bears are remaining on land to look for food.

The village had fewer than 50 visitors annually before 2011, said Jennifer Reed, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"Today we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of visitors, many from around the world each year," Reed said.

Polar bears have always been a common sight on sea ice near Kaktovik, but residents started noticing a change in the mid-1990s. More bears seemed to stay on land, and researchers began taking note of more female bears making dens in the snow on land instead of on the ice.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists began hearing reports of increasing numbers of polar bears in the area in the early 2000s, Reed said. As more attention was given to the plight of polar bears about a decade ago, more tourists stated heading to Kaktovik.

Most tourists visit in the fall, when bears are forced toward land because sea ice is the farthest away from the shore. Some bears become stranded near Kaktovik until the sea freezes again in October or November.

The fall is also when residents of Kaktovik kill three bowhead whales. Bruce Inglangasak, an Inupiaq subsistence hunter who offers wildlife viewing tours, said residents were unsure how tourists would react to whaling.

"The community was scared about, you know, activists that was going to try to get us to shut down the whaling – subsistence whaling," Inglangasak said. "But that's not true."

Inglangasak said he's been offering polar bear tours since 2003 or 2004.

Most of his clients are from China and Europe, as well as from the Lower 48 U.S. states and arrive in Katovik on charter planes from Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Many tourists stay several days in the village, which has two small hotels, Inglangasak said.