Tour operators trying to continue on as the territory prepares for the global coronavirus pandemic are being told to stop for the good of their communities.
The Mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, Erwin Elias, said on Thursday he had written to operators in the region, asking them to “respect the communities’ concerns and decisions about Covid-19.”
NWT Tourism’s chief executive, Cathie Bolstad, said in a letter to nearly 200 members across the territory: “There is a time for tours and this is not the time.”
The NWT government said it was “working closely … and directly with tour operators to make sure they are aware of the health precautions and steps they need to be taking.”
The statements came as a number of tour operators in Yellowknife continued work this week, driving buses between hotels and offering activities.
Several operators told Cabin Radio they were open for business but taking additional precautions, such as some social distancing measures for tourists and screening visitors with questions about their health before boarding tour buses.
At the moment, the NWT’s chief public health officer advises all international tourists arriving into Canada in the past two weeks to self-isolate for the remainder of that two-week period or leave at once. Domestic tourists are simply asked to self-monitor for Covid-19 symptoms.
However, the chief public health officer’s advice to date is not legally binding. Operating tours at the moment is entirely legal, even if it is not recommended.
The NWT declared a public health emergency this week, which does provide more powers to place legally enforceable restrictions on movement. Those powers have not yet been used.
Few, if any, international tourists new to Canada will have been able to arrive in the NWT this week. The country closed its borders to most foreign nationals four days ago.
Groups being contacted
Some smaller operators who already made the decision to close have described the pain of seeing their livelihoods disappear, leaving them no source of income for months to come.
Regardless of that consequence, Mayor Elias in Tuktoyaktuk said tours were no longer appropriate.
“Technically the hamlet or RCMP do not have authority to stop any tourists, tour companies, or visitors from coming in to the community to do a community tour,” Elias told residents in an update posted online.
“In saying that, we are working hand-in-hand with the MLA [Nunakput’s Jackie Jacobson] and ministers of the GNWT to try to resolve this very serious concern.”
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, said the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment had been trying to contact tour groups in the Beaufort Delta.
Semmler wrote on Thursday that one tour group in Tuktoyaktuk “was unaware of the community ban and has no further tours scheduled,” while a separate group in Aklavik was “from the Yukon and is being contacted now.”
Meanwhile, in the South Slave, the Kátł’odeeche First Nation took the step of setting up its own checkpoints on an ice road and the highway, allowing only First Nation members to enter.
‘Get your guests home’
In a special notice, the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment sought to reassure NWT residents that steps were being taken to ensure tourism did not undermine communities’ precautions against the spread of Covid-19.
“Information will continue to be sent out directly to tourism operators in the coming days as this situation progresses. We are committed to working together to support our tourism industry during this time,” the notice read.
“We all have a civic duty to follow the health advisories and precautions of the Chief Public Health Officer of the NWT, especially now that the NWT has declared a public health state of emergency.”
Bolstad, in the latest of near-daily updates sent by NWT Tourism to its members, urged operators to help any remaining visitors get home.
“While kindness is good medicine when times are troubled and it goes a long, long way,” she wrote, “I can’t say enough: listen to advisories and help get your guests home.”