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Visitor Learning: In the Polar Bear Capital of the World

This paper will discuss the visitor experience, design, and measurement when comparing in-situ and ex-situ nature-based tourism case studies. Particularly, this presentation will address the methods used to learn more about the social dynamics that help facilitate visitor learning and how to plan for particular types of visitor experiences. This research will also discuss the effect of place, authenticity and the importance of sustainable and responsible tourism in experiential visitor learning. Tourism to ecologically sensitive areas, such as the Canadian Arctic, is often regarded as a way for people to learn about environmental issues such as climate change, as well as connect with and care about remote polar communities, the northern environment and the people that live there (Ballantyne & Packer, 2005; Falk, Ballantyne, Packer, & Benckendorff, 2012). However, travel to in-situ destinations that are remote or ecologically sensitive is frequently critiqued as exacerbating environmental problems due to the large carbon footprint created in travelling to these locations (Dawson, Stewart, Lemelin, & Scott, 2010; Gossling, 2013). The terms in-situ and ex-situ simply mean on-site and not on-site, respectively. These terms are often used when discussing conservation, as ex-situ sites (such as zoos) and are often argued to be important places for in-situ (such as a conservation area or park) species conservation. In the case of nature-based tourism, there remains the question of the impact of visiting an in-situ destination versus an ex-situ site. As there is little empirical evidence to inform what the differences may exist between these two experiences in relation to environmental education and learning, visitor experience, and impact on the communities. Research is needed to understand these phenomena and inform best practices for both in-situ and ex-situ nature-based tourism experiences. This paper will focus on practical lessons learned from my dissertation research. It will address what kinds of learning were found in the in-situ and ex-situ case studies, and will provide insight into how polar tourism destinations can plan effective visitor experiences that achieve communities’ desired learning outcomes.