The Nahanni National Park Reserve’s website is clear. The Dehcho’s biggest tourist attraction is closed for business during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A notice states: “All Parks Canada facilities are temporarily closed. All visitor services and all motor vehicle access by visitors are suspended until further notice.”
More than 30,000 square kilometres of Northwest Territories mountains, forests, and waterfalls are – to the maximum extent possible – shut down.
Parks Canada says that will last until the end of May at the earliest, but the broader Nahanni shutdown extends beyond that one measure. Restrictions on international travel and at the NWT border have wiped out demand.
Flight and tour operators, bed-and-breakfasts, and local businesses that rely on the Nahanni’s summer injection of tourism dollars are already struggling, and could be wiped out if the shutdown reaches into their peak season.
Joel Hibbard owns Nahanni Wild, a tour operator based in Whitehorse, Yukon. His tourism season is a limited window hoving into view, and he is feeling the pressure.
“Parks Canada is saying it’s only until May 31. Our first departure date is June 14,” said Hibbard this week.
“I don’t know what could develop in that time.”
The company usually takes around 150 people to the Nahanni each season, including trips of one to three weeks into the national park reserve.
Hibbard said NWT Tourism, the territory’s industry body for tour operators, has done “an excellent job of bringing the industry together and trying to make sure our concerns are being addressed.”
That means he can see “a path forward” – but it’s a long one.
“Tourism was hit first, it has been hit the hardest, and it’s likely that the recovery is going to take the longest of any industry in Canada,” he said.
No visitors, no marketing trips
Ted Grant is the owner-operator of Simpson Air in Fort Simpson, a village to the east of the Nahanni National Park Reserve.
Grant says he has flown into the Nahanni “more than anybody in history.”
Ordinarily the summer brings daily tour flights for Grant’s small airline. With the Nahanni’s closure and other travel restrictions possibly stretching into June, he fears his losses will be enormous.
“We don’t usually start flying tourists into the park until the first week of June, so we’ll see how it goes,” said Grant.
“We’re doing medical flights for patients at the hospital, mail contracts, and emergency flights for the power corporation or for medevac for local communities.
“My revenues here are down over 75 percent. We’ll see how long we can last.”
Cancellations and the closure of the NWT’s borders to most traffic aren’t the only issue for Grant. He also had to miss crucial marketing opportunities, a setback that may last for two seasons.
“I missed all the marketing in Calgary, Beijing, and Rendez-vous Canada [a cancelled tourism convention] in Quebec City,” said Grant.
“That means any marketing that we do now is usually for the following year, so this is going to be a two-year downfall now.”
Tourism businesses ‘crumble away’
Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle in Yellowknife, feels he still has options for marketing. However, border closures mean many of his European and American clients cancelled their plans.
Wong is waiting to receive a licence to take his first group into the territory’s newest park – Thaidene Nëné, to the east of Yellowknife – this August.
“There are lots of obstacles to us being able to salvage something this summer,” Wong said, though he feels the federal government is trying to help.
“Some federal programs have been good because they seem to be fairly flexible, they’re making changes,” he said. “And a lot of these changes are actually opening up eligibility for us. So that’s good. They’re open to tweaking things on the go [for the NWT].”
Mélanie Joly, the federal economic development minister, on Friday told Cabin Radio her government was sending more money north in part to help tour operators.
“Come to CanNor, let’s have a conversation, we’ll see how we can help,” said Joly, referring to the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.
“Sometimes tourism operators have issues, sometimes businesses that are a bit more seasonal,” Joly continued. “We’ve already increased $15 million to small and mid-sized businesses across the North through CanNor last Monday, but we saw there was more to be done. That’s why we’ve increased the budget to make sure we can help businesses.”
Katrina Nokleby – the territory’s minister of industry, tourism, and investment – said her government had been vocal to Ottawa that federal subsidies weren’t always working, particularly for seasonal operators who can’t demonstrate a year-on-year drop in revenue.
“We’re trying to identify the gaps that [mean] businesses can’t qualify,” said Nokleby, “We understand, too, it’s really difficult for a lot of our businesses to jump through the hoops or make the proof of requirements that the federal government has.”
Wong said the reason he chose this business path is the opportunity to show people the NWT wilderness and paddle some of “the great places left in the world.”
“It’s not being able to do that, and then watch what you’ve built – so much of your life in the last few years – just crumble away,” said Wong. “It’s terrible.“
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.
Correction: April 20, 2020 – 10:35 MT. This article originally stated Nahanni Wild is based in Canmore, Alberta. In fact, the company has relocated and is now based in Whitehorse, Yukon. Our report has been updated to reflect this.