Meet REXSAC PhD students: Alix Varnajot

Discover the fourth episode of our series of Q&A with REXSAC PhD Students. This time meet Alix Varnajot, PhD student at the University of Oulu. His research is focused on the Arctic Circle both as a tourist attraction and as a border to the Arctic region.


What drew you to the area/topic of your studies?

I have always been passionate about geography, borders, toponymies and maps. When examining maps in geography class when I was younger, I was always the one looking at places nobody else was paying attention to, hence my curiosity for remote places, and later on, an interest for studying the geography of Polar regions. Nevertheless, it was only during my Master degree that I realized how necessary it is to understand the dynamics of tourism at global and local scales. There is basically only one tourism system on the planet, and that is mass tourism. It is imperative to make it sustainable since alternative forms of tourism, supposedly sustainable (which is a contentious issue), still represent a very small part of worldwide tourism. This is how my interests in Polar regions and tourism merged for my PhD thesis.


What are the objectives of your work?

The objectives are twofold. First, by examining tourists’ practices and representations of the Arctic, my work aims to analyze what the Arctic attributes of Rovaniemi are, and how these specific attributes are extracted and exploited by the tourism industry through marketing strategies, the implementation and development of particular tourist activities, or through the produced tourist Arctic gaze. Secondly, by reconceptualizing Arctic tourism, the ultimate goal is to provide tools for a more sustainable future for Arctic tourism, where smart and responsible tourism practices can be associated with satisfactory Arctic tourist experiences.


Field work by the Arctic Circle. Photo: Alix Varnajot
Field work by the Arctic Circle. Photo: Alix Varnajot


How does it support the objectives and work of REXSAC?

Firstly, examining tourists’ practices and representations of the Arctic allow for a better understanding of how tourism functions as an extractive industry in the context of Rovaniemi, and more generally in Lapland. This means understanding what and how the Arctic resources are extracted by the tourism industry. By investigating how tourists construct Arctic tourism, my research connects with and supports RT5. Secondly, it also connects with RT7 as I intend to anticipate future transformations of Arctic tourism due to ongoing climate changes. I will particularly look at how Arctic tourism will look like in the coming decades as the cryosphere recedes. Tourism has become a great tool for rural and regional development in northern Finland. It is, therefore, critical to anticipate what will happen to these regions in terms of economic, social and cultural impacts when the basis of Arctic tourism – the cryosphere – disappears.


What has been your learnings or reflections from the REXSAC field-based coursework?

REXSAC field courses have always been interdisciplinary and the field-based course we had in Finnish Lapland allowed us to meet actors from the mining and tourism industries, as well as reindeer herders. What I particularly liked during this course was that we had the opportunity to observe and analyze what the Arctic really meant from the perspective of these different actors. Thus, based on these differences in Arctic representations, we were able to reflect on the intricacies of land-use conflicts, such as the opening of a new mine, or the development of tourism activities.


What are your career aspirations?

I’m looking to defend my PhD thesis sometime during the Summer of 2020. After that, my goal is to keep working on tourism issues in the Arctic and more generally in Polar regions. This means expanding my expertise to Antarctica, where tourism is also growing rapidly. I feel like this growth is unstoppable and many tourism-related issues are upon us, which means that there is a need to better understand tourists’ expectations, representations and experiences of these regions in order to develop responsible tourism practices. In the future, I would also like to expand my research to other places that fascinate me, such as the remote islands of the Atlantic or the Pacific.


About Author

Alix Varnajot Alix Varnajot

University of Oulu


Photo: Alix Varnajot

Photo: Alix Varnajot

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