The post-pandemic tourism struggle persists for some local businesses.
Raemee Kwong, tour agent consultant for Yellowknife-based tour company Aurora Dream Tours, said clients are booking Northern lights tours for September, but nothing more.
“It’s looking a little bit better than last year but the problem is that, before the pandemic, everything was very steady. But his year, people are only coming for this September, and it has become a really quiet winter,” she said.
She estimates that the company is getting about 30 per cent of the clientele it did before Covid-19.
“We used to use all our buses (up to nine) on a single day, but now we only need one,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, bookings started in mid-August and visits were spread out fairly evenly through the entire season.
“There is nothing to compare like before,” said Kwong.
And that poses problems in deciding whether to hire more full-time staff, she added.
This past winter showed some promise, but then it tapered off.
“We were like a little bit busy, just like around Christmas time and the new year,” Kwong said, “but then it was really slow until the month of March.”
Government support during the pandemic helped cover some power and heating bills and a modest amount for marketing and advertising. Aurora Dream Tours didn’t qualify for other government assistance, according to Kwong.
Six years of rejection
Joe Bailey, founder and owner of Indigenous tour company North Star Adventures, said his company is not as busy as before the pandemic.
Bailey revealed that last season, his operation saw only 50 per cent of its bookings compared to pre-pandemic.
He said that North Star Adventures has struggled to rebuild its customer base in the Canadian, American, Mexican, Brazilian and Australian markets.
Bailey expressed frustration when discussing the lack of government support available to his company.
“We’ve been denied six years in a row,” he said.
He applied for the Tourism Product Diversification and Marketing Program, which helps businesses reinvent, improve or expand tourism products and operations to meet future market demands by providing funding for business planning, product development, packaging and marketing.
While there are accessible loans from organizations such as the NWT Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC), these are not as helpful as grants from the government, according to Bailey.
He also spoke about the impact of the pandemic on his company’s operations. During the two years when tours were not allowed due to lockdowns, North Star Adventures had no revenue. To stay afloat, Bailey had to sell some of his company’s equipment. Rebuilding from this difficult period has been a challenge, especially with such limited government funding.
But this summer has brought a modest revival, with an increase in Yellowknife city tours and hiking excursions. That doesn’t make up for the lower demand for trips farther abroad in the NWT and Nunavut. For example, he mentioned his Mackenzie and Nahanni Experience package that offers a variety of options to allow tourists to discover national parks and rivers.
Despite these challenges, Bailey remains optimistic about the future. With the NWT borders open and bookings coming in earlier than usual for the aurora season, he said he believes that his company is on the road to a gradual recovery.