Yellowknife tour guide Rosie Strong planned on retiring this fall after what she hoped would be a “brilliant winter and spring tour season.” Covid-19 shattered those plans.
Now, Strong is dismantling the tour business she built over the past 30 years – Strong Interpretation – and has begun looking for other work.
“It was a hard decision, but it’s a fiscally responsible one if I want to have any money left in my bank account,” she said. “I just can’t keep paying out and not have any money coming in.”
Learning the territory’s border will remain closed for the foreseeable future was the “last nail on the tourism coffin” for Strong. The territorial government has said the NWT won’t reopen until a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 is found – likely not until at least 2021.
The vast majority of Strong’s clients come from outside the territory.
“Whatever shred of hope that I had to have a summer and fall season, it kind-of got blown out of the water,” she said, adding it’s unclear what the territory’s tourism industry will look like in a year’s time.
Strong said she understands the border needs to remain closed to protect vulnerable populations, but noted not having outside money coming in will affect many businesses.
Most of all, Strong said she is heartbroken that the job she loved doing for three decades is no longer feasible, even with the federal relief funding that’s available.
“Every day that I’m out with a group of people or an individual that’s travelling here, I get to see this place through their eyes for the first time and I get to fall in love with the NWT all over again,” she said.
“I’ve had people cry on my tours, not because it’s hard, but because they’re just so moved by what they’re seeing and comprehending of this place,” she added. “To be a part of that, it’s beyond words some days.”
The news that operators are either shutting down or seriously considering closure is a severe blow to a sector that had been intended to lead the diversification of the NWT’s economy.
Strong is not the only one who may leave the territory’s tourism industry as the pandemic hits hard.
Lawrence Neyando, seen in a submitted photo, owns Arctic Motorcycle Adventures.
This would have been Lawrence Neyando’s second summer offering motorcycle tours through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean.
Neyando, who owns Inuvik-based Arctic Motorcycle Adventures, said he had booked half of his summer tours by February. Another company had planned to connect him with clients in Dawson City, Yukon.
“It was looking really good and two weeks later, boom.”
Neyando said he spent last year focused on marketing, advertising, and getting his business up and running. This year he had hoped to finish paying off loans and assess whether it was feasible to keep going.
Now he’s selling merchandise to pay those expenses. He has a regular job and isn’t sure if he will reopen his business next year.
“I might want to just get on my bike and go for a ride and clear my mind instead of taking tours and having to find money to [cover] all the operating costs,” he said. “There’s just so many unknowns, which sucks, you know? I really put a lot into it and our window to operate was already small.”
Staycations not feasible for many businesses
Under phase one of the territory’s pandemic recovery plan, which came into effect on Friday afternoon, tourism operators can reopen for NWT residents wanting “staycations” as long as they meet certain conditions.
Neyando said the majority of his clients came from Europe and the United States. With high operating costs, it’s not worth it for him to reopen just for local trips.
“It wouldn’t be enough. I’d have to be doing tours every day to keep going,” he said.
Gord Gin says it also doesn’t make sense for him to reopen for staycations.
He has owned Yellow Dog Lodge, located about 55 km from Yellowknife, for 15 years, but is based in Cochrane, Alberta. The lodge offers aurora and sport fishing packages.
Gin said between 160 to 250 people stay at the lodge every year. They come from elsewhere in Canada, the United States, Asia, Australia and Europe. He lost about $30,000 in March because of cancelled bookings.
The Yellow Dog Lodge, located about 55 km from Yellowknife, offers aurora and sport fishing packages. Photo: yellowdoglodge.ca
“Feasibility-wise I’m down almost 100 percent. Like, I’d say zero revenues between now and the next time that we open,” he said.
Gin did say he is considering reopening for a women’s broomball team that comes to the lodge every year.
Additional challenges for non-residents
There are added challenges for tourism operators that aren’t NWT residents. Gin estimates that’s about 20 percent of the territory’s operators.
Under current rules, non-residents ordinarily aren’t allowed to enter the territory. Anyone who does come into the NWT has to self-isolate for 14 days in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River, or Fort Smith.
Non-resident tourism operators say that’s an issue when it comes to reopening for local clients or doing annual maintenance.
The territorial government has said there are compassionate and exceptional exemptions to public health orders for which non-resident tourism operators can apply.
“I haven’t tried that yet” Gin said. “I’m waiting for someone else in the tourism industry to let me know how their application went.”
Overall, Gin said many operators are frustrated by the lack of communication and details from the territorial government.
“It’s very disheartening when we don’t know, ourselves, what the future’s going to hold,” he said.
“We build a rapport with our clients and our clients look to us for leadership and advice. And right now I can’t give it [to them] because I’m waiting for advice and leadership from the NWT.”
Hotels losing 80 percent of business
Hotels in the territory are feeling the sting of travel restrictions.
Ed Romanowski is the president and chief operating officer of Nunastar Properties, which owns the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife.
Romanowski said the hotel has lost between 80 and 90 percent of its business. The Explorer has had to lay off more than 100 staff.
“It’s hard to see what the future will be in the next number of months because not having any visitors allowed into the territories is a very, very big barrier,” he said.
Romanowski supports being cautious over the next few months to prevent Covid-19 from spreading in the territory, but he thinks waiting 12 to 18 months to open the border isn’t the best solution.
“I think cutting it off completely and saying, ‘Well we’re not going to have anybody visit the Northwest Territories until there’s a cure’ … that’s ridiculous. I mean, clearly that’s not sustainable,” he said.
Yellowknife’s Explorer Hotel is seen in April 2020. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Romanowski also raised concerns about the social impacts of businesses shuttering and the effect on people’s mental wellbeing.
When it comes to staycations, Romanowski said people travelling in the territory aren’t necessarily going to spend money on hotels. He said the government should be promoting business and medical travel.
Terry Rowe, general manager of the Ptarmigan Inn in Hay River, said he’s supportive of the government’s pandemic recovery plans.
“The government right from the start has been pretty open, pretty clear about everything they’re doing,” he said.
The Ptarmigan Inn has also lost about 80 percent of its business. The hotel went from 60 full-time and part-time staff to nine, Rowe said, but has been able to bring back some employees with the federal wage subsidy.
He noted the hotel doesn’t just offer lodging but also has banquet facilities and a gym, which have shut down. The restaurant and bar is now offering takeout and delivery.
“We’re doing what we can, just like every other business,” he said.
Unlike hotels in Yellowknife, Rowe said the Ptarmigan Inn doesn’t get many tourists. Instead, many guests are travelling for work. But some of their business does come from sports tourism, festivals, and conferences.
Katrina Nokleby, the NWT’s tourism minister, is pictured in an image issued to newsrooms on July 8, 2019.
The hotel has stayed open to essential workers and those self-isolating in Hay River. Its kitchen is providing meals for those self-isolating at other locations in town. (According to the government’s latest numbers, 348 self-isolation plans have been filed in Hay River.)
Rowe said between seven and 12 people are self-isolating at the hotel on any given day. Some government workers have started to book rooms now that restrictions have begun to ease, he added.
Operators meet with minister
Many tour operators raised their concerns with Katrina Nokleby, the NWT’s tourism minister, in an hour-long video conference on May 7. They highlighted gaps in federal relief programs, hard expenses like tourism operator licence fees, and the border closure, among other issues.
According to NWT Tourism, which helped to arrange the meeting, Nokleby said the territory is advocating for tailored federal relief for the North. She committed to looking into many of the operators’ concerns and said she would meet with them again.
Nokleby also said her department is working on an economic analysis of a survey of tour operators from March. The department also has plans to survey the broader business community about the impacts of the pandemic.
In a Monday news conference, Premier Caroline Cochrane said her government is working on a long-term economic and social recovery plan for the territory.