Tourists can return to the Northwest Territories. Who is waiting to greet them?

After two years, the Northwest Territories is once again open to all tourists. For tourism businesses still standing, this brings a collective sigh of relief.

On Tuesday, the NWT Government’s Covid-19 Secretariat confirmed that tourists can now visit the territory following the easing of pandemic-related travel restrictions that have existed, in one form or another, since mid-March 2020.

Tourists should always file a self-isolation plan, although in almost all cases you will not need to self-isolate upon arrival in the territory.

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“I’m relieved and ecstatic for the businesses that have been so impacted over the past 24 months,” said Donna Lee Demarcke, chief executive of NWT Tourism, the territory’s tour operator industry body.

“It’s a great relief to see that we are coming out of where we were.”

Wendy Grater, owner of wilderness adventure company Black Feather, said she took bookings with caution but warned customers not to book air travel or make non-refundable purchases.

“We were fully prepared to issue refunds and postpone things,” she said, “so it’s really exciting to be able to go up to our customers and say, ‘Hey, your dream trip will come true.'”

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Prior to the pandemic, the NWT tourism industry was on a meteoric rise. Although the sector still generates only a fraction of the revenue attributed to mining, tourism attracted 120,000 visitors to the territory in 2018-2019, who spent a record $210 million, compared to 147 million dollars four years earlier.

“We were moving forward and upward. We were on a great trajectory,” Demarcke said.

A tourist’s perspective

For tourists, understanding what can and cannot be done in the Northwest Territories may now be easier.

Previously, a derogation allowed certain tourists to visit the territory if they agreed to isolate themselves in remote lodges. Most tourist activities have been effectively banned, although family members can apply to “reunite” with relatives in the Northwest Territories. Tourists coming from outside Canada must comply with federal rules before reaching the territory.

Peter Engelschion, a Norwegian tourist, first visited the Northwest Territories as part of an effort to retrace the steps of Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad. He has since made many more visits and hoped to return in the summer of 2022 but, writing ahead of Tuesday’s change in focus, said the territory’s Covid-19 messaging was confusing.

“From the Norwegian perspective, the current guidelines for entering Canada and connecting to the Northwest Territories are not easy to understand,” he said by email. “The use of ArriveCAN [a federal app] with the self-isolation plan, the Covid test before, and especially the process of entering Canada and the Northwest Territories is very unclear.

“All of this leads Norwegians to postpone again and I think, at worst, to end the whole trip.”

Engelschion expected his party to pay $9,000 per person — more than $50,000 in total — for guides, equipment, food and transportation.

Counting only Norwegian tourists, he estimated the overall loss to Yellowknife businesses in one season would be $250,000 if the rules were not simplified. Usually, most of the NWT’s foreign tourism comes from countries like Japan, South Korea, China, and the United States.

Norwegian tourists in the Northwest Territories. Photo: Peter Engelschion

Corey Myers, owner of Frontier Lodge, said while the “remote accommodation” provision initially seemed promising, the past two years have mostly been a revenue wash.

“We’ve been there [application] but, after measuring the interest of our guests, we have decided to open it only to NWT residents, have a short stay season, complete our renovations and focus on 2022,” he said. he declares.

Now things are looking up. Frontier Lodge took a leap of faith that the territory would reopen this summer and rebooked many guests whose trips had been suspended for the past two years.

“We are fully booked for this year, except for the opening of a new women’s wellness retreat in June,” Myers said.

A struggle remains

For many companies, Tuesday’s news came too late.

Rosie Strong, former owner of the Strong Interpretation walking tour company in Yellowknife, had to close her business in 2020.

“I loved what I did. I loved showing this place to people, seeing it through their eyes and being part of this very dynamic industry. It’s a real gift. I will miss it,” Strong said.

While some were able to survive two lean years and are considering reopening, Strong said that was not the case for many. “I’m in my late 50s now and I don’t have 10 years that I want to dedicate to building a business that will thrive in year 10,” she said. “Time to appreciate what I had and start the next chapter.”

Yoshi Otsuka, owner of Nanook Aurora Tours, has also struggled during the pandemic and doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“It’s really difficult. I have another job at the moment, I do different jobs. I sold my house. I was renting a vehicle and returned it. I still have a camera and winter clothes. So that’s it,” he said.

He too has customers who have advanced their reservations compared to previous years. As his clientele is almost exclusively Japanese, his business is also dependent on Japan’s Covid-19 recovery, making it difficult to say when these postponed trips will take place.

“In Japan, the situation with Covid-19 is not so good,” Otsuka said. “They tell me maybe the end of summer, August or September, or maybe the end of the year.

“And the Japanese economy is down as well. People are hurting. They can’t afford to get to Yellowknife. Not like they did pre-Covid, anyway. I think it’s going to take a long time to to recover.

More frustratingly, many of those customers have already booked into places where restrictions eased earlier.

“I spoke with another agency in Vancouver and there are a lot of Japanese students there, a lot of tourists, and they decided to go to Whitehorse instead of Yellowknife,” Otsuka said.

“I know of two businesses in Whitehorse that were fully booked in February and March. I just hope everything will be lifted by April so I can start advertising again.

Aurora Village in the fall of 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Aurora Village in the fall of 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Aurora Village, a popular tourist destination outside of Yellowknife, said by email it will remain closed to tourists this winter and likely won’t reopen until August. Locals who might be interested in staying in March can still book.

“The reopening announcement came a bit too late and too late in the season finale for us. We just missed February, which is usually the highest month,” the company wrote.

“Although March is usually also a busy month, everything slows down considerably in April. Unfortunately, restarting for only one month of activity, after two years of closure, does not make much sense.

“Needless to say, our operation is not just about launching a few vans and minibuses, but a very comprehensive set of operations and a trained team of our crew.”

“Keep This Dream Alive”

Other operators agree that recovery cannot be instantaneous.

“I think it’s going to take over a year,” said Demarcke of NWT Tourism.

“On the one hand, there is a lot of pent-up demand. We can see through interaction on social media, with our call center and on our website that there are many people who want to visit the Northwest Territories. I think our marketing team has done a fantastic job of keeping that dream alive over the past two years.

“But I also think that there are still hesitations to travel. People aren’t sure about safety and don’t know exactly what the rules are. So I think it will take some time for people to start moving around freely.

At Black Feather, Grater agrees. “If you look at something else like this, like 9/11 or major financial downturns that had a big effect on the economy, it often takes up to five years before things get back to a normal. normal condition,” she said.

But Grater, like many, has expressed appreciation for the atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration between small businesses during a difficult time for the industry – and hopes the difficult lessons of the past year will translate into greater strength. in the future.

“We learned that tourism can touch all 33 communities in the Northwest Territories and has the opportunity to provide residents of these communities with meaningful work,” said Demarcke.

“There is no other industry like it.

“We are going to rebuild the tourism industry, but I also think we have the opportunity to rebuild it even better than it was.”

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