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How did this aboriginal eco-tour group beat out the big time?

Travellers enjoy meeting Nunavut locals at home.

Arviat Community Ecotourism

A tiny tourism outfit in a tiny Nunavut town called Arviat has won one of the travel industry's biggest prizes, beating the world's highest-profile tour company and pointing to a possible future for aboriginal tourism.

"The judges felt this was a model not only for Arctic communities or the Inuit, but something that would be an inspiration to indigenous communities and community-based tourism around the world," says Costas Christ, an editor with National Geographic and chair of the World Travel and Tourism Council's judging panel.

Arviat Community Ecotourism (ACE) started up a little more than two years ago, employs 35 locals and has so far had a total of 320 clients. But numbers aren't the reason the WTTC flew a judge to Arviat all the way from Ulan Bator to see ACE in action, or why they flew ACE's boss, 27-year-old Olivia Tagalik, to a little tropical island off the south coast of China in April to attend their annual summit. And it's not the reason they beat Abercrombie & Kent to win the Tourism for Tomorrow Community Award. It's the business model.

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"Its operation contributes all of its funds toward community conservation, and to keep the environment intact with low- to no-impact guiding expeditions," says Jalsa Urubshurow, the expert who evaluated ACE last winter. "It's a completely sustainable model, both for the community and for the business."

One of the things that impressed the WTTC most is that the operation does as much for the locals as it does for the tourists, who spend an average of $3,000 for the experience.

"Our program is pretty unique," says Olivia Tagalik, Arviat's tourism co-ordinator. "We combine not only wildlife but cultural experiences in the community. … You can visit with elders in their home, talk about the different stories that they have, the experiences in their life over the past few years, what it was like living nomadically off the land."

As the climate changes, polar bears are heading to colder climes, away from Churchill and towards Arviat, which is a 45-minute flight north. Churchill gets about 20,000 tourists a year, and Arviat hopes to capture some of that. It's already made it onto the itinerary of ultra high-end cruise line Silversea, which anchored there for the first time last August.

For tour information, see visitarviat.ca.

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