THE NORTHERN LIGHTS PACK 'EM IN

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A group of well-bundled Japanese tourists crane their necks toward the starry Arctic night sky. Suddenly, as the Northern Lights begin to shimmer on the horizon, a battalion of flashbulbs explode in unison.

No matter that a flash is useless in capturing the undulating images, the group is thrilled to have caught sight of the mysterious celestial phenomenon.

``We are all very happy to have seen the Northern Lights. We don't care about the cold or the accommodations, this is a dream for us,'' says Matsotoshi Yamanaka, a Tokyo travel agent.

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His group of 17 tourists paid $3,000 apiece for a week's vacation here, star gazing, riding in dog sleds, and watching caribou from light airplanes.

And they are not alone. Although most visitors come in the summer, tourism is on the rise throughout the year in Canada's Northwest Territories, a vast expanse larger than India that is home to only 62,000 people.

About as many visitors travel to the 1.3 million-square-mile territory as there are residents, tourism officials say. The number of Japanese and German visitors are growing, but Canadians and Americans are still the most common tourists.

``This is the Land of the Midnight Sun and polar bears... . Tourism here is just getting started,'' says travel agent Bill Tait. Revenues from tourism for the whole territory are estimated at only about $77 million a year.

But travel in the frozen north is not cheap. The distances are vast and flights easily run into the thousands of dollars. Moreover veteran travelers warn that hotels and restaurants are limited in number and often very basic.

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