Tour buses wait outside Yellowknife's Days Inn and Suites on March 16, 2020.
Some Yellowknife aurora tourism outfitters have closed as the Covid-19 pandemic grows, while others remain in operation and are monitoring visitors for health issues.
Aurora Village, one of the territory’s largest tourism operators, suspended operations on Monday. Other operators say they plan to close soon.
Some said they remained comfortable for tours to continue with screening measures in place.
The latest guidance from the territory’s chief public health officer states all symptom-free NWT visitors who arrived into Canada in the past 14 days should self-isolate for the remainder of that two-week period or leave as soon as possible.
Anyone with Covid-19 symptoms – a cough, fever, or difficulty breathing – should self-isolate immediately and call a healthcare provider. Advisories are being distributed to people arriving at Yellowknife Airport.
Nationally, Canada has now barred almost all foreign nationals with a few exceptions, such as US citizens and immediate family of Canadian citizens and permanent residents. On Wednesday, the US-Canada border was moving toward closure for all but essential travel.
In practice, these federal and territorial actions mean only symptom-free tourists who have been in Canada for at least two weeks should be attending attractions or trips in the NWT.
Cabin Radio understands some international visitors arriving in the past two weeks have been booked on tours, against the chief public health officer’s recommendations. (The recommendations so far are just that – they are advice. They are not legally enforceable, and nobody is breaking the law for going against them.)
The chief executive of NWT Tourism, Cathie Bolstad, said she had also received reports of newly arrived guests being taken on tours.
NWT Tourism is the territory’s industry association and cannot act as a regulator, Bolstad said. She has been sharing health advisories with members, urging them to focus on keeping guests safe and healthy and helping newer arrivals to either self-isolate or leave the country.
“I think our tour operators are trying to wind down operations while managing the need to help people with their airlines,” said Bolstad. “There are people that will need groceries if they’re going into self isolation.
“It’s very easy for us to stand on the sidelines and look at someone, you know, in a parka on the street who’s come to see our spectacular aurora, and say: ‘Why are they here?’
“Well, they’re here because we invited them. And they’re here because we need them to go home right now and they didn’t anticipate [this].”
Cancellations, Canadian guests
Grant Beck, a veteran tour operator who runs Beck’s Kennels and Aurora Wonderland, said – as far as he is aware – the only people going on tours are from Canada. Other tour operators reached by Cabin Radio said they are also only guiding visitors from Canada.
Verda Law, owner of Yellowknife Tours, said her company was still operating but planning a shutdown “very soon” – and not accepting tourists recently arrived in Canada. Guests are being asked how long they have been in the country before they arrive in Yellowknife, she said.
Aaron Liu, owner of Morning Star Travel Ltd, said he is asking similar questions of his guests: including where they are from and whether they are experiencing any cold or flu-like symptoms. So far, he hasn’t encountered any guests with these symptoms.
“That’s why we allow our guests [to] cancel before they come to Yellowknife. We also don’t want to accept the guests if they don’t feel well,” he said.
“We strongly request that guests reconsider going to Yellowknife by flight because we’re also afraid. We don’t want the coronavirus in Yellowknife.”
Liu’s company, which ordinarily runs aurora viewing tours with seven buses, had only one bus operating on Tuesday and was planning a complete shutdown on Wednesday after the few remaining guests left Yellowknife.
Liu said the tourists he had seen for the past few weeks were people studying and working in Canada. He isn’t accepting bookings from other countries. “No guests from other countries, and no bookings. It’s very quiet,” he said.
A Yellowknife Tours bus waits outside the Explorer Hotel on Monday evening.
Beck said his operation remains up and running but no current guests are from abroad. For the past two weeks, his company hasn’t received any guests from China amid many cancellations.
Beck plans to stay open until his normal annual shutdown of April 15, mainly offering dog-sledding trips. He and his staff are holding twice-daily meetings and following information provided by the NWT government.
If there is a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the Yellowknife area, Beck said, “it’s over for us” and the company would shut down.
Other operators whose buses were observed operating Monday night – Raven Tours and Aurora Borealis Experience – could not be reached by Wednesday.
Taking extra precautions
Tour operators uniformly said they had been aware of the Covid-19 pandemic for some time and taken precautionary measures. The nature of those precautions varies by operator.
Beck said his company is asking people, prior to boarding buses, whether they are experiencing cold or fever symptoms. The company handles tour groups of 10 to 12 people, he said, and ensures only limited numbers on a single bus. Tourists are housed in separate cabins.
Law said her tour company has been checking the body temperature of tourists when they arrive at Yellowknife Airport and would not accept anyone registering a fever.
In addition, she said, her company has stepped up sanitization and cleaning of equipment and gear for the past six weeks. “We have been very alert on this virus for quite a while already,” she said.
Tracy Therrien, who runs Bucketlist Tours, said she always has hand sanitizer and tissues and has been bleaching down the bus she uses. She felt there wasn’t much more she could do for her tours of 10 to 16 guests. She was shutting down operations completely on Wednesday as a preventative measure.
“What I kind-of hope is it’s hard and fast and we recover quickly,” she said.
“There’s nothing we can do, it’s just one of those things that happens. I’d rather be shutting down for preventative reasons than being shut down with the virus … because I have been subject to a lot of international travellers. So I’m just grateful that precautions are being put in place.”
Mass cancellations, uncertainty
The global response to Covid-19 has led to cancellations on a massive scale for some local tour operators. Liu said a group of 150 people – a conference group meant to arrive in March – had cancelled. With his business nearly entirely reliant on the Chinese market, Liu hopes the pandemic ends quickly so he can re-open in August when the aurora season begins again.
Therrien said she was fully booked into mid-April and her closure has resulted in 80 cancellations. Like others, she switches focus to guiding the Nahanni and Wood Buffalo national parks over the summer months. She wonders what that season, and the next year, might bring.
“We also lived through Sars and 9/11 and other incidents, world epidemics like this,” she said. “We’ve just got to be cautious and patient and hopefully things will be back to normal sooner than later.
“Hopefully the NWT stays completely free of the virus.”
With 40 wintertime staff and more than a dozen buses in operation, Beck’s Kennels is a large aurora-viewing operator. Yet Beck said his operations are not significantly affected as the season nears its end. He says his company is sufficiently varied in the origin of its clientele, and the products it offers, to weather the interruption.
“We’re diversified enough that we’re still busy,” Beck said, with some dog-sledding trips still taking place despite many cancellations in March.
“I’m not making this less than it is – it’s a very terrible disease that’s happening right now and it’s held up the whole country and all countries,” Beck said. “But it’s the end of the season and that’s what’s happening. So it’s not as bad as it could have been.”
Law said her eight to 10 full-time staff at Yellowknife Tours are staying on, with some taking holidays and others having their hours shortened.
Liu said Morning Star is down to two to three staff. Some former employes have moved on to places like Banff to continue working holidays. Drivers have returned to their homes in British Columbia.
Beck said he hasn’t had to lay anyone off. Seasonal workers were already expecting to leave at the end of the month.
What worries him more is next season.
“When you have this kind of a scare and this kind of a pandemic, it takes a while for people to start to think recreationally and travel abroad,” he said.
“Even after the Gulf War and after Sars, people didn’t travel like they did for some time.”
Bolstad said NWT Tourism is advocating for businesses affected by the widespread interruptions. In a letter to Premier Caroline Cochrane, NWT Tourism urged the creation of an emergency contingency fund alongside other supports.
When the time is right – and that definitely isn’t now, Bolstad added – special funding will be needed to once again market Canada and the NWT to the world.