Things have been rough before for NWT tourism, but never this rough.
If we hark back to the recovery from the last major recession in 2008-‘09, NWT visitor spending rang in at $107 million in 2009-‘10 and rose to $111 million in 2010-‘11 as the industry began to rebound.
In 2011, the Government of the Northwest Territories devised a strategic roadmap titled Tourism 2015 to further strengthen the sector. The goal was to drive up the value of the tourism industry to $130 million by 2015-‘16. Years later, the GNWT reported that tourism was actually worth $140 million to the territorial economy by 2014-‘15, ahead of schedule and going great guns. That was thanks in large part to successful marketing and flourishing numbers of visitors from Japan and China eager to see the northern lights.
The next milepost was Tourism 2020, which set a lofty goal of yielding $207 million yearly from NWT tourism by 2021, as well as total visitor numbers exceeding 109,500 people annually.
Nobody involved in that planning and goal-setting had any inkling of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic that was on the way. None of us did.
Tourism was essentially wiped off the map over the past two years. Restaurants were hit hard but at least they had the option to serve takeout. There is no takeout equivalent for tourism.
The salve was applied on March 1, when leisure travel was permitted to resume to the NWT. But the reversal isn’t without some headaches and barriers — just ask Joe Bailey of North Star Adventures and Dan Wong of Jackpine Paddle, featured in this edition of Yellowknifer.
If that wasn’t enough, a highly contagious Omicron variant known as BA.2 was detected in the NWT earlier this week. It’s spreading rapidly in some Canadian jurisdictions and elsewhere in spots around the world, but we need to avoid overreaction so long as this variant proves to be mild, which early indicators show it is.
We can counterbalance that with the fact that more than 85 per cent of Canadians ages five and over are double vaccinated. However, the federal government is so far still holding the line against the unvaccinated, preventing them from boarding flights domestically and internationally. That means at least a minority of potential NWT tourists will have to drive north of 60.
Either way, we remain hopeful that the worst of the coronavirus is behind us, although are no guarantees what the future holds in store.
The territorial government would be wise to invest in the core objectives it laid out in its Tourism 2015 and Tourism 2020 visions: increasing visitor volume and visitor spending; sustaining demand through visitor experience excellence; supporting and encouraging the development of Indigenous cultural tourism; building the foundation for community tourism; and developing and supporting the tourism workforce.
Those are solid pillars that will serve us well.
And we can all do our part. As our early spring eventually gives way to summer, go camping at NWT parks and campgrounds as much as you can. Pay a visit to another Northern community.
They’re baby steps, but we must rebuild – we have no choice. And every tourist counts.