The return of leisure travel to the Northwest Territories on March 1 wasn’t the comeback some tourism operators had hoped for and they’re finding difficulty in making up for lost time.
“It’s not as rosy as people think when the border opened for tour companies,” said Joe Bailey, owner of North Star Adventures. “We still got the reality of the fallout from the pandemic. Before the pandemic, we had 15 employees, three vans, a bus going, it was very good.”
Now, North Star is down to four employees, one truck and a bus.
While competing with other tourism companies, much of the season will be spent chipping away at accumulated debt from the past two years of NWT tourism being put on the shelf during the pandemic.
North Star Adventures incurs about $17,000 per month in expenses to keep the business afloat, according to Bailey. Over the past two years, that has accumulated to approximately $400,000, he said.
With regards to government funding support, Bailey said there’s not enough to resolve his business’s issues.
“I would say half of that, so maybe, figuratively speaking, 250,000 in debt (remaining),” he said, accounting for the government aid.
Adding to his woes, North Star Adventures had technical difficulties with its website that led to issues with bookings.
“We were looking pretty good actually for a shortened winter season from March 1 to the middle of April, we were looking pretty good until that happened,” Bailey said. “Then we lost most customers. The website team was able to get it back up and running about 10 days later.”
Despite the pitfalls, Bailey remains hopeful for the summer aurora season that North Star Adventures has planned.
“Right now, with only one bus, we’re planning to sell out 24 seats every night for the 42 days of our season,” he said.
Overall, a successful summer aurora season for North Star Adventures will help to chip away at the company’s financial burden, Bailey acknowledged.
Similarly, Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle, is also looking forward to the summer season, which is stacking up to be “an incredibly busy year,” he said. He’ll be offering various tour packages and equipping customers seeking their own adventures.
“A lot of people are looking for rentals for their own personal usage,” Wong said.
Financially, Jackpine Paddle is on solid ground due to strong support the organization has received from working with Indigenous communities and non-profit organizations, but Wong has other pressing needs.
“Our challenges right now are finding enough guides, experienced guides and instructors and finding the gear, because the supply chain isn’t working at all,” he said.
The cost of doing business has also risen substantially over the past several months.
“Inflation is driving the prices up a lot, you know, for fuel for air charters and our vehicles,” said Wong.