Tourism operators are pleased that the GNWT’s new Tourism 2025 strategy maintains support for the sector, even if it offers few new highlights.

Tourism 2025: RoadMap to Recovery was tabled on March 30 in the legislative assembly by Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) Minister Caroline Wawzonek.

The strategy notes that tourism was one of the first sectors to feel the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused “significant negative impacts” to 92 per cent of tourism businesses in the NWT.

Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle thinks the strategy and the tourism sector would benefit from more targeted supports specifically for NWT-based operators. Julien Schroeder photo courtesy of Dan Wong

The framework aims to reactivate tourism from a standstill, enable recovery and spur growth, especially in regions outside Yellowknife.

It’s strategic priorities include:

  • investing in infrastructure, enhancements to products and services, and development of new products and services
  • building capacity among operators and tourism staff through training and mentorship
  • engaging with tourism stakeholders through enhanced communications and marketing efforts
  • gathering and reporting key data and insights to guide and evaluate investments

The government aims by 2025-26 to welcome 103,000 visitors to the NWT, who will generate an estimated $170 million dollars in revenues, though the uncertainties of the pandemic might call for revisiting those targets, the strategy says.

ITI collected input from dozens of people, governments and companies in drafting the strategy.

Stimulate the economy

Renée Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber Commerce, said she’s impressed that the chamber’s suggestion for more investment in infrastructure was incorporated into the strategy.

One of the programs the strategy will maintain is the Community Tourism Infrastructure Contribution (CTIC) that funds projects like visitor centres, museums, municipal parks, campgrounds, trails and other attractions.

“Not only will this allow the tourism industry to grow but (it will) help stimulate the economy with the builds,” Comeau said. “Infrastructure for tourism will come in all sizes, from simple trail marks so that our expansive trail system in almost every community is properly marked to Instagram-worthy picture spots, to larger projects like having the border open year-round, the potential to parks being open year-round and having established and properly funded tourism centres in all major tourism destinations in the NWT.”

‘It’s not enough’

For Joe Bailey, owner of North Star Adventures, the four strategic objectives are what he expected but he thinks the plan could offer more immediate support for operators.

“Right now, as long as the NWT remains closed, we’re not generating any revenue,” he said. “With each passing day we’re still paying expenses at our office, with our vehicle payments. That’s accruing every month. How can we pay that if the border is closed?”

However, he’s grateful for the $50,000 assistance program for operators’ fixed costs that was announced on Feb. 25.

“That program is great. If the GNWT is going to keep the borders closed then the GNWT has the responsibility to assist those industries affected by the closure,” Bailey said.

As an Indigenous operator, Bailey also feels the strategy means well but could be doing more.

One of the plan’s Indigenous-focused initiatives is Indigenous tourism business development, a new training program that will support the growth of Indigenous tourism businesses and their products.

An Indigenous tourism development officer will offer dedicated resources to this initiative, such as information and advice about development in the regions, and liaising with Indigenous organizations, like the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).

“It’s not enough,” Bailey said. “Indigenous tourism is about to explode across Canada. I would like to see more focus on development and support of Indigenous tourism. Maybe they could look at the communities? I would like to see all First Nations with tourism licences.

“With this strategy hopefully they can increase the funding but also categorize it for NWT businesses,” he said, adding that Tourism 2025 doesn’t address the issue of southern “fly by night” operators coming up for a season and receiving tourism licences.

Bailey is more upbeat on the strategy’s On-the-Land Collaborative Program, which is oriented towards training youth to promote cultural knowledge and on-the-land skills for tourism.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “I’m looking to do tours and workshops in communities. I think introducing the concept of tourism for the youth is a good starting point for the youth.”

Local jobs

Jackpine Paddle owner Dan Wong sees the strategy as “staying the course” that the government has already been on, and he’s glad no major support programs are being taken away even as the GNWT faces a difficult financial position.

Wong agrees with Bailey that the strategy would benefit from more support for NWT-based operators.

Too many guides come up from the south, receive licences, stay for a season and then leave, he said.

“What will change that is having more Northern-owned businesses and having people in communities connect with the industry. I look to the Yukon and I see a lot more homegrown businesses with a bigger share of the pie, definitely in the summer.

“The government only has so much money, so how do we get the best bang for our buck and meet the other goals in the strategy? Best way to do that is to support Northern tour operators with eligibility criteria. GNWT money is going to both southern tour operators and NWT operators.

“The grants don’t reserve funds exclusively for Northern operators. I think the benefits would be greater if that wasn’t the case. It’s surprising to me when you look at ITI (the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment) in other areas like the film industry, which has grants just for the Northern film industry.”

Wong also thinks that to accomplish the goals of the strategy, the future of tourism in the NWT should be more clearly defined, with such metrics as who qualifies for assistance and the number of local jobs created by tourism.

“How many Northerners are being hired from these new projects we’re investing in? That should be a goal,” he said.

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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