The Ecocenter as Tourist Attraction:
Ely and the International Wolf Center

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota

Section 2: Nature Tourism and the Ecocenter

Since 1950, tourism has rapidly grown as an economic activity, and it will soon be the world's largest industry. (Whelan 1991:4). In recent years, increasing numbers of tourists have sought vacations in which they can explore and enjoy wilderness areas. Little attention, however, has been paid to a phenomenon following in the wake of increasing public interest in the environment--the growth of "ecocenters." Though similar in many ways to visitors' centers at national parks, ecocenters usually focus on a particular animal species for which the area is known. They typically are located in a rural town adjacent to a popular nature or wilderness reserve and may be considered important factors in the development of a tourism base for the economy (Lewis 1995). In addition to the IWC, examples of such ecocenters include the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin; the Sigurd Olson Institute's Loon Project in Ashland, Wisconsin; and the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center in Wyoming. In Minnesota, there are also proposals for a North American Bear Center and a White-tailed Deer Center.

Little is known, however, about the role such ecocenters play in regional tourism. Several scholars have examined the role of heritage centers in local economies (Johnson and Thomas 1992, Hall and McArthur 1993), but these centers are clearly major attractions in their own right. Ecocenters, on the other hand, are more likely secondary attractions, relying to a great extent upon the touristic appeal of the primary attractions--typically a nearby park or nature reserve. Cassells and Valentine (1990) have proposed a tripartite typology for nature tourism analysis in which tourist activities are either dependent on, enhanced by, or incidental to their natural setting. Modifying this typology offers a useful means to evaluate the appeal of an ecocenter as either dependent on its proximity to a nature-based attraction, enhanced by such proximity, or incidental to it. The degree of this dependence also highlights the extent to which the ecocenter itself contributes to tourism visitation in the area. Location is clearly a critical factor in an ecocenter's relationship with the nearby wilderness area.

When choosing the site for its ecocenter in the mid 1980s, the Committee for an International Wolf Center considered several places, both in Ely and on Minnesota's North Shore. Though both areas are gateways to the BWCA, the North Shore is closer to the Twin Cities and attracts significantly greater numbers of tourists year-round (Minnesota Department of Tourism 1994). The matter provoked a good deal of debate among concerned parties (Feasibility Report 1987). After weighing various criteria including proximity to wolves and wilderness, site features, community support and tourism potential, the Committee selected Ely (Committee for an International Wolf Center 1988). In the early 1990s, the IWC constructed its new facility on a hill several miles east of downtown Ely. Also located at the site is the U.S. Forest Service's Kawishiwi Wilderness Permit Station and a U.S. Customs Office.

Adjacent to the IWC is a 1.25 acre fenced enclosure, where the resident pack of four wolves live. An observation window in the Wolf Center allows visitors to watch the wolves throughout the day. Within its 17,000 square feet is a 6,000 square foot exhibit, "Wolves and Humans," donated by the Science Museum of Minnesota, a small theater, a gift shop, and office space. Other activities for visitors include naturalist-led walks, evening wolf howls, and weekend educational programs. Admission in 1995 was $4.00 for adults and $2.50 for senior citizens and children.

The Wolf Center has gained considerable publicity in the regional and national media. However, early projections of 113,000 visitors annually have not materialized. In 1995, only 50,000 of the estimated 160,000 to 250,000 tourists to Ely visited the ecocenter. Elsewhere in rural Minnesota, of course, the economic impact of 50,000 visitors to an ecocenter would be considerable. In an existing tourist destination like Ely, such an impact is more difficult to estimate, since these visitors may have vacationed in the area whether or not the IWC existed. Only after the Wolf Center's dependence on its environs is known, however, can its economic impact on the regional economy be assessed.

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