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How much of a dent did wildfire evacuations put in NWT summer tourism?

The northern lights over Duncan Lake in the Northwest Territories in September 2020
The northern lights over Duncan Lake in the Northwest Territories in September 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Dan Wong, who owns outdoor adventure company Jackpine Paddle, was having a successful 2023 season. Not even a cancelled or delayed trip, even with low water across the Northwest Territories.

Then, all of Yellowknife and the surrounding areas were ordered to evacuate.

“We hadn’t been seriously impacted, but I felt that we were like threading the needle,” he said of the season prior to the August 16 order.

“And then we got hit in the face … It’s been a pretty unfortunate end to the season.”

Wong said the three-week long evacuation meant his company lost about a quarter of the season and five trips had to be cancelled.



“Each trip is quite important to us,” he said. “To lose a single trip is a big deal. A lot of planning and work went into one, with up to 10 guests on each trip.”

While Wong said that has been “pretty discouraging,” he remains optimistic and is already looking forward to next summer.

“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and you have to be willing to accept that risk,” he said of owning a business.

This summer is the second since NWT travel restrictions related to Covid-19 were lifted. It was expected be a banner season for tour operators across the territory.



Instead, the NWT’s worst wildfire season on record forced a dozen communities to evacuate and cut off major transportation routes.

Corey Myers is the general manager of the Frontier Fishing Lodge on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, which is owned by the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation.

While Łútsël K’é was not ordered to evacuate, Myers said the lodge was affected by the evacuation of Yellowknife, as airlines pulled out of the city early. No guests could fly in or out of the nearby towns of Hay River or Fort Smith, either, as they had already been evacuated.

There was little warning that a citywide evacuation would be called, Myers said, leaving 18 guests and nine staff stranded at the lodge while regular food deliveries were abruptly halted. He said the lodge hired an expensive charter from Edmonton to fly everyone out.

As with Wong, Myers said the lodge lost a quarter of its season.

“It was probably going to be another record-setting year – bigger than last year, which would have been really nice coming out of Covid, just to have those two good years under our belt,” he said.

Myers said the exact impact is yet to be determined as clients are deciding whether to rebook visits that had to be cancelled. He believes 2023 will still be a successful season.

“Financially, I think we’re OK,” he said. “But obviously we would have liked to operate for the three-and-a-half more weeks that we had planned.”



Bobby Drygeese, who owns B Dene Adventures, a tourism and cultural awareness camp outside Dettah, said he had a lot of cancellations this summer. Some people are still “iffy” about coming to the territory, he said.

“There’s some coming back, but not that much,” Drygeese said.

He said his business has lost money and seasonal workers have been struggling due to the loss of income.

He expects tourism to pick back up in the winter, when fires are no longer burning above ground.

Gord Gin, owner of Yellow Dog Lodge north of Yellowknife, faced a wildfire on his doorstep this summer. While his lodge survived, he worries about the negative impact of national and international media coverage of wildfires in the territory.

“Our global customer base is now a little bit afraid or apprehensive of coming to the Northwest Territories,” he said. “I’m still getting cancellations.”

Gin estimates he lost around $180,000 in gross revenue. He said some staff left the lodge due to stress or respiratory conditions.

“2023 was going to be a banner year for us,” he said. “It would have been a very nice year to get back what we lost over the past three years.”



Gin said his lodge was designated as an alternative location for an NWT government helicopter base, allowing them to house and feed firefighters this summer.

He said the lodge is now back hosting guests from all over the globe. He wants to stress to tourists that it is safe to travel to the territory and the lodge.

“We’re not in danger of burning,” he said. “We’re still here, and we still want to be here, and that’s why we operate in the Northwest Territories.”

‘Hopefully it won’t affect our future image’

Several hotels in Yellowknife were designated as essential during the evacuation, meaning they could house firefighters and others working to protect the city. But hotel operators said they still took a hit.

“If we did not have this agreement with the government, most likely we would have been in a very dire situation,” said Ata Botev, vice-president of hotels for Nunastar Properties, which owns and operates the city’s Explorer Hotel.

“We are extremely grateful to all the people that were staying in our hotel, generally, doing what they did for the community. And we were actually very proud that we were allowed to do our little contribution in the grand scheme of things.”

Botev said the company felt the impact from the evacuation order throughout September, which he said is usually its strongest month of the year. While the City of Yellowknife and Yellowknives Dene First Nation announced on September 1 that the order would be lifted on September 6, he said international trips, conferences and other events are booked months in advance.

Botev estimates the hotel lost up to 30 percent of its accommodation business and more than 50 percent of events last month. He expects business to pick back up this month.



Edward Tse, manager of the Discovery Inn, said the hotel lost about 20 percent of its occupancy this summer due to the evacuation order.

He said many tourists from China and Taiwan have now returned, even with occasionally smoky conditions in the city.

“They are not able to see the best of what we can offer,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t affect our future image of the city.”

While the NWT government has announced supports for businesses impacted by wildfires, and insurance may cover some costs, there have been calls for more to be done.

In a news release last month, NWT Tourism encouraged Canadians to visit the territory to help businesses recover from the economic impacts of so many evacuations.

“There is a perception that vast parts of the territory were affected by fire – and while large parts of our population evacuated, our infrastructure and the majority of our territory has returned to normal,” chief executive officer Donna Lee Demarcke was quoted as saying.

“Our tourism operators rely on visitors to help them recover from the economic impact the evacuation had.”

Demarcke did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with Cabin Radio.



With all evacuation orders in the NWT now lifted, tourists have begun returning.

According to the City of Yellowknife, 1,892 people came to the city’s visitor information centre between September 12 and 25. In July, the centre received a total of 924 visitors, while 502 people visited the centre in August before it was closed due to the evacuation of Yellowknife.

“We’re super excited to see the number of visitors that did come in when we reopened on September 12 – and really hope for the next year that we don’t have any more of these unique events, because 2023 has been pretty eventful,” said Kerry Thistle, the city’s director of economic development and strategy.

Miranda Tsang, who travelled to Yellowknife from China, is one of the people who stopped in at the visitor centre last month.

She told Cabin Radio she wanted to visit the territory to view the aurora and, while she was “a little bit worried” by the evacuation, it did not affect her trip.

“It was very great,” she said of viewing the northern lights.

Simona Rosenfield contributed reporting.