Tourism minister Caroline Wawzonek announced two relief programs for the struggling tourism sector at a press conference on Monday.
The Pandemic Relief Extension Program (PREP) will offer fixed-cost relief to eligible tourism operators up to a maximum of $100,000. Unlike the federal program it replaces, home-based tourism businesses in the territory will be eligible for funding.
The Supplement for Tourism Accommodation Relief (STAR) will provide financial assistance for eligible “accommodation providers” with three or more rooms up to 400 dollars per room per month until the business breaks even.
“Through these two, our hope is that our licensed tourism operators and regulated accommodation providers with three or more rooms will have support to keep their lights on and keep their doors open, until we are at a point where we are not talking about relief and recovery but again back to a point of comfort and growth,” said Wawzonek at the press conference on Monday.
The rolling application system will last for the entire fiscal year.
“With border restrictions changing when they do change, it doesn’t mean there’s going to be a light turned on and things are going to go right back to where they were,” said Donna Lee Demarcke, executive director of NWT tourism.
Tourism was one of the NWT industries hit hardest by the pandemic.
Businesses reported hundreds of job losses across the industry in two surveys conducted in the territory.
Demarcke said tourism operations were down about 85 percent after the first round of pandemic border restrictions in May of last year.
“In order for our businesses to contribute to the recovery of our economy, they have to survive until travel resumes,” she said at the press conference.
“The supports are a critical step toward tourism business revival and survival. The tourism industry is anxiously awaiting the release of the reopening plans, in which we will hope to see a timeline for reducing restrictions, reopening borders, and welcoming visitors.”
For seasonal operators, the pace of recovery will depend on when restrictions are lifted.
Staycations stopgap, not solution
Jess Fortner, the territory’s director of tourism and parks, said the GNWT does not collect data on staycations.
Currently, there is no concrete way to measure the success of pandemic staycations.
“Anecdotally, it’s been fairly successful,” said Demarcke.
“However, with 15,000 households in the NWT versus well over 100,000 visitors that we were seeing before the border restrictions came into place … we know it hasn’t replaced by any means the levels that we were at. It’s helped some operators remain open at a reduced capacity.”
Even for tourism operators who have successfully marketed staycations, the reduced rates needed to attract locals have not replaced income from outside the territory.
“A lot of the industry was of course providing discounts to keep their doors open, but it certainly wasn’t a bumper year for anyone, as far as I’m aware,” said Wawzonek.
“I’ve spoken to a couple of the operators who said, look, we’re booked solid, and that’s great, but we’re booked solid because of the deals. And this is coming on the heels of months of not being booked.”
In the competitive industry, Wawzonek said she views the new programs as a way for tourism operators in the territory to position themselves in a crowded market for when borders eventually open.
“This is why we held on. This is why we kept our doors open,” she said.
“This is why we took the losses to promote staycations – so we could start to feel that welcoming back.”