The Bush administration's decision today to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act likely means more tourists will flock to a tiny Canadian town on Hudson Bay where bears are the star attraction every fall.
"People want to see them while they are still there," said Frank Cregor of Tennessee-based Cregor Adventures. "For companies like us, it's a sad thing, but it's almost free advertising. The tours truly sell themselves."
Cregor, who has booked trips with operators in the little town of Churchill in Manitoba since 2001, said he has sold twice as many trips this year as at this same time last year. "We have a huge number of clients from Great Britain and Australia, likely due to the [weak] dollar," Cregor said.
John Gunter, manager of bear tour operator Tundra Buggy Adventures, said he hopes the designation will mean better protection for the bears and a growing awareness of the problem of melting tundra ice.
"What changes now is a greater awareness about the challenges that polar bears face," Gunter said.
Tourists come to Churchill, a town about six blocks long, to see the bears; there are about 900 polar bears in the area. They go out on the tundra in buggies, peer at the animals through windows of the specially designed vehicles and get super-close to the bears -- without setting foot in their habitat.
On one trip, according to Peggy Cregor, who runs the business with husband Frank, visitors can stay in five buggies linked together -- with sleeping quarters, a lounge and a dining car -- that are permanently housed on the ice.
"You can see bears almost 24/7," she said. The trip costs from $3,500 to $7,000 (not including airfare from your point of origin), depending on the length of stay. Visitors can reach Churchill only by train or plane; many fly in and out by way of Winnipeg.
Although the bears' endangered designation is likely to draw more tourists, the companies that take visitors on the tundra to see the bears can't increase the number of vehicles and trips because of a local limit on permits.
"We'll probably sell out sooner," Gunter said.
The most popular time to see the polar bears in Manitoba is in October and November, when polar bears hunt for seals on the frozen bay waters. Polar bears generally ignore the tundra buggies, which look like white school buses on testosterone, giving visitors a chance to see the bears hunt and sleep.
Cregor and other companies also offer polar bear tours to Spitsbergen, Norway, but visitors don't get as close to the bears. The tours are on boats, and you aren't guaranteed good sightings, according to the Cregors.
"It would be more like whale watching," said Peggy Cregor. "You never know where you're going to be seeing them as they're hunting on ice. It's a more natural experience, seeing them on ice floes, but in Churchill you get the close-up experience of seeing them fight, play, mothers protecting their cubs."