Dipping a toe, a foot or taking a full plunge in the Arctic Ocean is one reason why tourists visit Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., and according to the manager of tourism and development in Inuvik, people will drive a long way to do that.

“Where else in Canada, literally can you get in your car in Vancouver and end up at the Arctic Ocean?” said Jackie Challis.

When the 137-km Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway is completed in about four years, it will be the only public road to the Arctic Ocean in North America. (The Dalton Highway in Alaska gets close but the last section is part of the privately owned Prudhoe Bay oil facility.)

The highway is good news for tourism operators like Eileen Jacobson in Tuktoyaktuk, who hope to see an increase in tourism.

Jacobson owns Arctic Ocean Tuk Tours and drives a taxi in the downtime. During her two- and three-hour tours she takes visitors to the community freezer that’s built deep into the permafrost, shares the history of Tuktoyaktuk and takes them to the Arctic Ocean. On the longer tours, she shares traditional food such as muktuk (the skin and fat of a whale) and dry fish from her smoker.

Eileen Jacobson

Eileen Jacobson drives a taxi when she isn't doing tours for her company, Arctic Ocean Tuk Tours. (Karen McColl)

Jacobson said it’s been a slow season — she’s only had about 300 people on her tours so far.

“Hopefully [the road] will bring in more tourism,” she said.

Jacobson started offering tours about seven years ago, after restrictions on caribou hunting led her and her husband to shut down their big game hunting business.

“Instead of camping in Inuvik if they drive the Dempster, they’ll drive right here and come and camp here and possibly do the tour with me," she said. "Hopefully.” 

But Tuktoyaktuk currently lacks the infrastructure to support large increases in overnight tourism. It has a few bed and breakfasts but it doesn’t have a hotel, restaurant, campground or visitors' centre.

Terry Testart, senior administrative officer for the hamlet, said the community needs a hotel, but he isn’t aware of any plans for new infrastructure in the community.

“I would not know if individuals are planning anything until I get a land application,” he said.

Challis said she thinks Inuvik will remain the service hub, at least in the short term, but she said there are concerns that the road could be detrimental to Inuvik tourism.

“I think that some people are afraid people are going to drive through Inuvik and straight to Tuk,” she said.

Statistics from the territory estimate that about 3,750 people visited the Inuvik Visitor Centre in 2013, which doesn’t count people who travel to Inuvik without going to the centre.

Tasting muktuk

A visitor tries some muktuk (raw whale) on a delta tour with Up North Tours. (Karen McColl)

While similar statistics aren’t available for Tuktoyaktuk, Jacobson estimates that about 1,000 people go on guided tours with her or one of the other local tour operators in a given year.

Challis expects these numbers to increase and thinks both communities can benefit. She attended trade shows in Edmonton and Vancouver, this spring and said she was surprised by the amount of interest people showed in the road.

“I think more people know about the road being opened than we thought,” she said. “Already, people are planning, two, three years out.”

'If we don’t go a different direction we will go bankrupt.'- Kylik Kisoun Taylor

An increase in road travellers up the Dempster Highway won’t necessarily benefit Kylik Kisoun Taylor, owner of Up North Tours in Inuvik. Most of his business is taking people on "flight-seeing" and boat tours to Tuktoyaktuk and he thinks this market will almost completely disappear when the all-season road opens.

“Ninety per cent of our customers go to Tuk. And probably 90 per cent of those would drive if they had the option,” he said. “So basically if we don’t go a different direction we will go bankrupt, simple as that.”

Kisoun Taylor is building a cabin in the Mackenzie Delta and planning to start offering high-end multi-day trips.

“It’s sort of a good kick in the butt for us. This is sort of the direction we want to go. Now we absolutely have to or we don’t have a business in four years,” he said.

Once the highway is completed, the winter road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk featured in Ice Road Truckers will no longer be built, which may increase its popularity over the next few winters.

Challis said there are “probably a thousand selfies” of tourists standing in the snow next to the Arctic Ocean sign.”

“The next two years is really a great time for us to be promoting ‘Drive over the Arctic Ocean.’ Nowhere else in Canada can you do that.”