NWT tourism sector crumbles with borders closed

‘With the closure of the borders… that’s been devastating.’

As things stand, Joe Bailey is only a few months away from giving up his office in downtown Yellowknife.

He’s already sold furniture, listed work vehicles and considered parting with a few skidoos – liquidating assets in order to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s bad, up to 99 per cent of our visitors are from outside of the territory. With the closures of the borders, well that’s been devastating,” Bailey said.

North Star Adventures was one of the first tourism companies in the Northwest Territories to screen guests retroactive to Jan. 25, 2020.
Bailey’s business has taken over a $200,000 hit this year with $50,000 going to refunds on aurora tours – money that would have helped with the off season.

“There was no territorial funding until recently. The GNWT was unfortunately really slow to respond with no funding until recently. If the borders stay closed and there’s no business I hope the forgivable loan paybacks are extended,” he said.

In the nearby community of Dettah, B. Dene Adventures is in the same predicament.

“Every year it was getting better and we were working with more people and more companies who were bringing people in. Ninety per cent [of tourists] were from Asia and we’d average 30, 40 people a night for tours,” Bobby Drygeese, owner and operator of B. Dene said.

With 110,000 visitors travelling to the N.W.T. in the 2018-2019 fiscal year alone, businesses around Yellowknife were investing and expanding operations.

NWT tourism
Bobby Drygeese, owner and operator of B. Dene Adventures has been expanding his business in the last few years, but now is facing financial hardships with the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of B. Dene Adventures


“Our machines were getting a little bit older so we got a loan from the bank for skidoos. snowmobiles and a van and sled. That was in December but by March everything shut down, so I had to figure out all the money for that,” he said.

NWT Tourism, a non-profit organization which serves 200 industry members, collected data over the summer to get a finger on the pulse on where the industry was at with government support but no tourists.

Cathie Bolstad, the executive directing officer for NWT Tourism said the survey results showed the revenue and survivability of business as is in dire condition, dramatically impacted by the border closures.

“We learned that within first seven months of 2020, 70 per cent of tourism operators had seen 75 or more decrease in revenue, despite some of them being able to pivot what they did and provide service for local residents,” Bolstad said.

According the data more than 75 per cent of operators surveyed reported their revenues by the end of 2020 will be down 70 to 100 per cent compared to the year prior.

There’s been 443 full-time and 405 part-time tourism jobs lost and for companies who remained opened their ability to host visitors was limited with low numbers of visitors and high costs for new safety requirements.

“How do you keep the dream alive for the future visitors and market for future visitors but pivot marketing to respect health order,” is something Bolstad and the NWT Tourism team looked at as the non-profit  provided marketing support for the struggling sector.

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Over the summer NWT Tourism helped operators develop and market “NWT STAYCATIONS,” tours for local residents who were likely to vacation nearby.

Drygeese and Bailey both took advantage.

While B. Dene Adventures had a difficult time marketing fishing and boating tours in and around Yellowknife, North Star Adventures took their business to the Dehcho region of the N.W.T. offering multi-day paddling trips on the Mackenzie river.

Bailey told APTN News his company received positive feedback from the NWT Staycation marketing and is looking to expand into hunting tours next year, but it would require relaxing some of the NWT’s current travel restrictions.

“We understand why they are keeping the borders closed and we just need to work around that. If we are able to get an exemption for next year. We’ll have our guests fly into Yellowknife, stay on the top floor of the Explorer hotel, isolating for 14 hours and next morning we are off to launch our canoes,” Bailey said.

NWT Tourism said with no international clients heading into the winter aurora season all sectors who directly and indirectly worked with tourism will need relief and assistance for the foreseeable future.

“Our message to government is the day the borders open is not the day support stop for operators and industry because some of the things that will bring their customers may not be there as quickly,” Bolstad said.

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