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Tourism operators pin hopes on territorial travellers as closed border reduces client base

Paddlers take part in a Jackpine Paddling course. photo courtesy of Dan Wong

Midway through Tourism Week (May 24-31), NWT tourism operators are trying their best to be optimistic about the summer season after tourist activity has decreased drastically. 

Foreign tourism arrivals began to fall in February and March as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, and the closing of the NWT border saw mass cancellations of bookings by Canadian tourists. 

RELATED REPORTING: Virus-related tourism dropoff slams local businesses

Greg Robertson, a fishing guide and owner of Bluefish Services, has lost all of his client bookings for June and July and calls the current state of the NWT tourism sector a “disaster.” 

“The only hope is that maybe I’ll pick up some locals but we don’t have the protocol (from the GNWT) yet. How do we go about operating in the current situation? I can’t be six feet away (from clients) because I work in a boat,” he said. 

It's too soon to determine whether bookings by NWT residents could give him some relief because usually residents take trips with visitors from outside of the territory. 

Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle out of Yellowknife, hopes canoe and kayak tours by NWT residents, and other outdoor programs, can give him some business relief this summer. photo courtesy of Sophia Dagher

“I’m just hoping that (the GNWT) will come up with some guidelines to follow and that they’ll be practical for us to operate,” he said. 

For Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle, which takes clients on canoe and kayak adventure trips, this summer will mark a stark change for the young company. 

He started operations four years ago and clients grew steadily over the last three summers. 

But the loss of bookings for this summer represents an 85 per cent reduction in business, he said. 

“Most of our growth had come from international tourists and running very adventurous canoeing and kayak trips. The (local) market here doesn't have a lot of people. We had to compete internationally to grow. We can’t do that this summer,” Wong explained. 

While it’s difficult to be optimistic with such a reduced client base, he's trying focus on the element of growth in staycations by NWT residents, many of whom would like to take a summer trip somewhere in Canada but would rather not go into self-isolation for two weeks when returning to the NWT. 

“There’s been more interest than normal from NWT residents,” Wong said, adding that Jackpine will also be able to run its youth summer adventure camps once it receives approval of its safety protocol plan from the chief public health officer. 

“The camps will start in about six weeks so we still have time to prepare for them. There’s a lot of pandemic paperwork to go through. We expect to get approval for that. These are all approved activities under phase one (of the Emerging Wisely recovery plan) because they’re outdoors.” 

Few people are more aware of the scale of the tourism decline than Cathie Bolstad, chief executive officer of NWT Tourism. 

Considering that in 2018-2019 more than 120,000 visitors came to the NWT, a pivot to local trips by NWT residents can’t replace the lost revenue that thousands of travellers this summer would have brought to the territory, Bolstad explained. 

However, she said global interest in travel to the NWT remains high. 

“Our website is seeing about 80 per cent of the same level of hits compared to the same time last year," she said. "So we know there's still good interest in the NWT for destination travel, and that's a good thing for our tourism industry, if we can keep the awareness alive through this difficult period.” 

In its capacity as a non-profit organization, NWT Tourism is following the current situation of tourism companies and is working on helping operators by giving them resources on federal business assistance programs. 

“We’re in dialogue with them about the possible gaps (in the programs) and doing a lot of work with governments and the chambers of commerce and the Tourism Association of Canada to ensure pandemic effects are limited,” Bolstad said. 

The organization is also conducting a marketing campaign to “make sure the Emerging Wisely plan plays out with some clarity in the near term,” for example by helping operators understand how can they write safety measure compliance plans. 

For the coming months, as territorial operators look at the possibilities for the local market, NWT Tourism seeks to “use this opportunity to showcase to residents what we have and what people from all over the world come to see and do here," said Bolstad. "I think that will contribute to the sense of pride here.”