More visitors made their way to the territory last year and injected an extra $8 million into its economy, NWT government statistics presented on Wednesday suggest.
The Northwest Territories welcomed more than 120,000 visitors in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the vast majority from Canada, according to statistics released at NWT Tourism's annual conference in Yellowknife.
That figure is slightly up from the 112,530 visitors in 2017-18, said Jess Fortner, the NWT government's director of tourism and parks.
While Canadians make up the vast majority of visitors to the NWT at 69 percent, visitors from Asia are on the rise. The territory is seeing a rise in tourists from China, with 16.6 percent of visitors coming from the country in 2018-19, followed by Japan at 6.8 percent.
Visitor spending increased $8 million on the last fiscal year, bringing $210 million into the territory – an average of $575,000 per day.
While business travel is the largest sector, accounting for 38 percent of visitor spending, there was a nine percent decrease in business spending year-on-year. "I'm hoping it's a bit of an anomalous year," Fortner said.
A close second to business spending is aurora viewing, which provides 32 percent of spending. According to Fortner, the number of visiting aurora seekers has grown 153 percent in five years. Compared to 2017-18, aurora visitor numbers rose 19 percent in the past year to 41,500 people.
Fortner warned the NWT is seeing "fierce competition" in aurora viewing, both within and outside Canada. He said improving infrastructure related to aurora tourism in the near future would be critical to winning that battle, while urging operators to work with surrounding communities in offering more cultural tourism.
Katrina Nokleby is the new tourism minister who will be tasked with deciding how the NWT government can best support operators. Increasing economic diversification is one of the new government's 22 stated priorities to date. Nokleby is expected to address the conference, in her first speech in the role, on Thursday evening.
"The NWT is young and it's emerging. We lack infrastructure and products in terms of quantity spread out over the jurisdiction," Fortner said, setting out the problems with which Nokleby must grapple. The NWT's "comparative advantages," Fortner said, are high-quality aurora, wilderness landscapes, and strong Indigenous cultures. "These are three things ... that consumers really, really want to experience," he said.
Figures suggested fishing and hunting visitor numbers bounced back after a few years of decline. In 2018-19, the NWT welcomed 530 hunters and 4,800 fishers.
How does the NWT compare?
While increasing numbers are encouraging for the territory, the NWT isn't alone in posting figures that look impressive at first glance.
Tourism in the neighbouring Yukon saw another "banner year" in 2018, a recent Yukon government news release stated, with more growth projected in 2019. According to estimates by the Canadian Tourism Research Institute, the Yukon saw 323,000 overnight visitors that year, a 4.8-percent increase on 2017. By comparison – and it's not clear if the two territories use the same criteria for their figures – the NWT reported smaller visitor numbers but posted a slightly better year-on-year increase at 6.64 percent.
Across the country, tourism spending from January to September 2018 was $80.8 billion, a 5.9-percent increase year-on-year that slightly outstrips the NWT's latest reported growth in tourism revenue.
Camping numbers for the NWT's 2018-19 season have not yet been published, but Fortner said indications showed the number of park visitors is "definitely on the rise." Despite an extremely rainy summer, 2018 was a record year for the NWT's parks with 36,526 campground visitors, a four-percent year-on-year increase.
The latest Yukon camping figures state non-resident visitor numbers rose 11 percent in the past year to 61,900.