Yellowknife tourism operators say they have accepted the reality that the return of more tourists will happen no sooner than the late summer or even months later, in line with Emerging Wisely 2021 estimates.
The GNWT’s plan on relaxing COVID-19 restrictions forecasts that the next major step towards normalcy of permitting leisure travel for fully vaccinated travellers could happen in the late summer or early fall.
All vaccinated visitors will be able to enter the NWT without self-isolating if 75 per cent of the NWT’s eligible population is fully vaccinated by then, Canada’s full vaccination level reaches 66 to 75 per cent and the seven-day average COVID-19 case count stays under 1,000 infections.
Sixty-seven per cent of the NWT’s eligible population was fully vaccinated as of July 6, and 73 per cent are partially vaccinated, according to the GNWT’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
Across Canada, about 27 per cent of the total population has been fully vaccinated, said the Public Health Agency of Canada in its latest update on July 5. There were 381 new COVID-19 cases on July 5.
Hoping for late summer bookings
Joe Bailey, owner of North Star Adventures is counting down the weeks until more bookings come in.
He’s been receiving numerous messages through social media and email asking about when borders will open, mostly from potential clients in the United States.
Bailey expects bookings to come in “right away” if the GNWT announces the thresholds for leisure travel have been met.
“Some companies in Toronto (already want to) book for aurora tourism in August. If the rules don’t change until late August or September we’ll move the bookings back,” he said.
If leisure travel for vaccinated visitors doesn’t pan out as hoped, Bailey fears his tough business position could get worse. He already had to sell off some equipment to pay his bills. He would be forced to sell more assets if there is no summer aurora season.
Even if he’s able to do more tours in the late summer, he expects recovery to move slowly.
“It will be slow for the first few years. It won’t be like it was before COVID-19. We’re not going to see the hustle and bustle in downtown Yellowknife that North Star saw at its peak until 2024. I think we’ll have full bookings of 20 to 30 people per night in 2024.”
B.Dene Adventures owner Bobby Drygeese is prepared for business to return to normal as long as it’s safe to do so.
“We should all make sure everyone is safe,” he said. “Our clients, our staff and our families. We should be ready to go once things are safe to move forward. I’m still upset about the business situation. I have workers who want to go back to work. Everyone wants to move forward with life.”
The GNWT’s timeline for the return of leisure travel didn’t surprise Drygeese. If anything, it’s earlier than the 2022 lifting of restrictions that some people in the tourism industry expected, he said.
Until he gets more bookings from non-residents, he’s confident his stay-cation programs can help carry B.Dene through.
Too late to make a difference
For Air Tindi, any influx of travellers by the late summer timeline would miss the airline’s busy tourism period.
“Our season, supporting the various lodges and adventure travellers, starts in June and ends in September. We are not expecting any change in business activity as these trips need to be booked in advance and with certainty,” said company president Chris Reynolds.
Emerging Wisely targets aside, tourism activity will remain relatively weak for Air Tindi as long as international border restrictions remain in place.
Compared to 2020, Reynolds expects there will be slightly more Canadian tourist passengers this season as remote lodges have since April been permitted to host non-residents who will isolate on-site.
But the summer season will still be much slower than normal, with float plane flights down by about 35 per cent compared to the last pre-COVID-19 season in 2019, he said.
Reynolds doesn’t expect non-resident tourism or flight activity to experience a significant uptick until March of 2022, when the increase in daylight hours will permit more daytime flights taking off from ice runways on skis.
“An opened border would allow for a busier ski plane season and a little tourism, but mostly more flights related to mineral exploration.”