Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, 2020 was shaping up to be the third year of a tourism wave in Tuktoyaktuk.
The opening of the highway from Inuvik in 2017 made getting there easier, and tourists from across the country started rushing to visit the community.
Bruce Noksana, who has lived in Tuktoyaktuk his whole life, described the summers of 2018 and 2019 as “really crazy.”
“People were staying all summer, so you got to meet a lot of people and everything,” he said.
“It’s a bit different for us,” said Sophie Stefure, another Tuk resident. “We used to be a fly-in community. We’re not used to having a lot of vehicles and crowds and stuff. There was a lot of traffic, the first year.”
With more and more people headed to Tuktoyaktuk and the lure of the Arctic coast, tourism started to grow. New tour operators, craft shops, and small businesses popped up, and the hamlet and territorial government invested more heavily in the sector.
Then the pandemic emerged, draining the momentum building in Tuk’s tourism industry.
“2020 was supposed to be my big year, then Covid hit,” said Richard Cockney of Cockney Big Game Hunting.
Cockney started his winter guiding company in 2017 – when the highway opened – after watching other outfitters in the community for years. He had planned to grow his business and eventually turn it into a full-time gig, but pandemic restrictions have made that an impossibility for now.
“I would have no money if I quit my job,” he said.
It was the same story for Noksana. He has kept a dog-mushing team for more than two decades and started offering dogsled tours with business partner Michele Tomasino a few years ago. Noksana Mushing Tours grew quickly until the pandemic struck.
“Our momentum was growing in 2019,” Tomasino said.
“We got the dogs in 2017, and December 2018 was just us practising, mostly. We didn’t really make any money that year. Then 2019 was been our biggest year ever.
“This year would have been bigger, for sure.”
‘We can’t employ anyone’
More established businesses haven’t been immune.
James and Maureen Pokiak, of Pokiak Guiding, have led big game hunts since 1981. They serve visitors from the likes of Australia, Germany, and Mexico, helping them take animals such as polar bears and muskox.
Weathering the sudden halt after 40 years has meant telling prospective customers – and themselves – to hang on.
“We’ve been able to access some of the programs, but the biggest thing cost-wise is our insurance,” Maureen Pokiak said. “We also employ local people, and now we haven’t employed anyone.”
Across the territory, tourism is one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit sectors.
Data from NWT Tourism last October showed more than 800 full-time and part-time jobs had been lost by that point. Two in five related businesses had closed either temporarily or for good.
This month, finance and tourism minister Caroline Wawzonek tabled a five-year strategy to help the sector recover. The document set out plans to grow the number of new tourism operators in regions outside Yellowknife by five percent.
Locals to the rescue
Not all hope has been lost for tourism in Tuk while the pandemic continues. Some local businesses have flourished.
Stefure, for instance, launched a canoe and kayak rental business last July. Even with no tourists from beyond the territory, she found herself busy with locals and day-trippers from Inuvik.
“There were people every day,” she said, “looking for something to do, wanting to be outdoors and enjoy the beautiful weather and paddling around.
“People that have lived here all their lives have never paddled across the island or gone to the pingos with a canoe or a kayak. So it’s something new, even for local people.”
Stefure said the quieter summer was a blessing in some ways. It gave the pair a chance to find their footing.
“It allowed me to ease into it, being the first year of starting the business, not knowing what to expect, and being new at all of this,” Stefure said.
Joanne Steen runs Grandma’s Kitchen, where she cooks muktuk, whitefish, and burgers. Though she typically serves tourists, she had a steady 2020 with customers from the Beaufort Delta.
“It was good to see familiar faces,” Steen said. “They go to Inuvik … then they take a drive on the highway to Tuktoyaktuk. I just point out what they could do.”
Steen conceded the season wasn’t the chaos of 2018 and 2019, where customers would line up along the Arctic coast for her food – but the break from that was nice, too.
“I didn’t mind,” she said. “No matter what, I’m always busy.”
The hamlet has used the lull offered by the pandemic to better prepare for the return of tourism.
At the beginning of 2021, a new visitor centre was trucked in from Inuvik. It’ll be used to greet tourists, promote local businesses, and educate visitors about the Inuvialuit people and culture.
At the time, Mayor Erwin Elias told Cabin Radio: “Whether we like it or not, tourism is going to come here.
“It’s just a matter of us trying to be more prepared for it and making sure we can benefit the most out of it – and at the same time, trying to respect our culture within the community.”
Persevering through the pandemic
Operators in Tuk are trying to do the same thing: use the quieter period to learn lessons from the first few years of having the highway.
Stefure will be acquiring more equipment – at least 10 more kayaks, which were her biggest hit – to meet demand from both tourists and locals. She hopes to start offering paddling tours.
Cockney has acquired new equipment and said he’s ready to get back to guiding as soon as it becomes possible.
“I can’t wait for … when everybody can travel again,” he said.
Noksana and Tomasino are pouring their money into growing their business. Noksana has used the time to bring on two local teenagers as apprentices, teaching them how to mush and care for the dogs.
“They’re 15 and 16, and they’re just excited,” he said. “I’m teaching them all my knowledge so when they get older and they want to do this, they’ll have the tools to do it.”
“I feel bad for the people that drive in and look around and drive out because they don’t experience anything,” Tomasino said. “You need to do stuff with the people here to really understand. Otherwise, it’s just a road.”
“Anywhere you go,” he said, “you’ve got to meet the people.”