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Virus-related tourism dropoff slams local businesses

Local restaurants are feeling the effects of a dropoff in tourism arrivals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Yellowknife businesses connected to tourism are feeling the bite of the COVID-19 pandemic even as of Tuesday morning, the territories have yet to report any positive cases of the virus.

The drop in tourist arrivals has meant that outdoor tour companies, restaurants and accommodations are reeling from customer reductions as low as 90 per cent.

On Sunday, Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola advised international visitors in the territory to self-isolate. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced severe restrictions on international flights.

Raemee Kwong, co-owner of Aurora Dream Tours, poses in front of her company vehicle. The lower number of tourists in Yellowknife has reduced her business activity by almost 90 per cent. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

“I got three groups that canceled this morning. Another group at lunch time. And then another one a few minutes ago that said they might cancel,” said Bobby Drygeese, owner of B.Dene Adventures.

He estimates that since February his customer numbers have fallen by 70 per cent.

“Tonight there was supposed to be 25. But it's down to 14 now and it might be down to 10 by tonight for aurora tours,” said Drygeese, who estimates that about 60 per cent of his customers are foreigners.

The situation will likely force him to close his winter tourism season a month earlier than the normal finishing date of April 15.

Aurora Dream Tours is facing an even sharper downturn.

“Right now, we have lost 80 to 90 per cent of our customers,” said Raemee Kwong, co-owner of Aurora Dream Tours, which offers guided tours in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Like Drygeese, Kwong is considering wrapping up her company's tourism season this month instead of in April.

The pandemic is affecting accommodations as well, and Jenny Qu, owner of Aurora Jenny’s B&B, said business is down by 70 per cent compared to last year at this time.

Her bed and breakfast draws a lot of Chinese-speaking tourists but she said the fall in customers represents tourists from all over the world.

Most of her remaining guests are from other parts of northern Canada and come here for medical travel or for business.

“I don't know how to keep my business in the next several months. I cannot accept people from Europe or America. It's a really hard time,” she said.

The business fallout is also hitting local restaurants, with less than half of the normal number of diners sitting down for meals.

“Our restaurant gets lots of tourists but (since) last month it has really dropped. It has been bad for a few weeks,” said Kim Luong, owner of the Vietnamese Noodle House on Franklin Avenue.

Luong estimates the tourist exodus has reduced her customer visits by 60 to 70 per cent.

“We've had slow periods but not like this before. If a lot of people go into quarantine in Yellowknife we might switch to having take-out only,” she said.

“We're OK for right now but we don't know what might happen next. We'll have to discuss our plan and see how we can survive.”

Elke's Table on 47 Street has seen half of its customers stay away.

“We have no more foreign tourists. Only a few tourists from inside Canada. The decrease started last Monday. Before that the numbers were OK. You could really see a decrease from last Monday,” said owner Elke Richter.

In her four years of operation this is the first time she has experienced such a drop off in activity, and it's hurting her business “quite a bit.”

“We have to see over the next 14 days how things are developing. The more they close down the less business there will be. We don't even have any positive (COVID-19) cases here yet. You never know, I might have to close down too.”

In other parts of Canada like Ontario, Vancouver and Calgary governments have asked bars and restaurants to close or limit customer numbers. But the NWT has yet to issue any such advisory.