The Northwest Territories government has announced it aims to lift restrictions on leisure travel in the territory beginning next month.
According to a Friday press release from the Covid Secretariat, under changes to public health orders planned for March 1, anyone will be able to travel into the territory with an approved self-isolation plan, regardless of their vaccination status.
That means the same public health rules will apply for both NWT residents and tourists.
Under current public health rules, NWT residents returning to the territory from travel are required to get tested for Covid-19 on days zero, one and four if they have travelled internationally within the past eight days, work in a healthcare setting or with vulnerable populations, or are headed to communities outside of regional hubs. Residents who are not fully vaccinated must self-isolate for seven full days, or six days after testing negative for Covid-19.
Non-NWT residents are currently allowed to enter the territory under compassionate and family reunification exemptions, or in “exceptional circumstances.” Remote tourism operators, like fly-in lodges, have been allowed to apply to host out-of-territory clients since April 2021.
Friday’s announcement marks a start to what public health officials have said will be a gradual lifting of public health restrictions in the territory before the public health emergency is fully ended this spring.
“We have learned a lot about Covid-19 and what public health measures work, especially being up-to-date on vaccinations,” Dr André Corriveau, the territory’s deputy chief public health officer, said in a statement. “As we all learn to live with Covid-19 in the best way possible, we also aim to normalize things like masking, staying home when sick, and other measures that have been proven to make a difference in protecting the vulnerable among us without having to rely on broad public health mandates.”
The territorial government said it is now announcing its plan to resume leisure travel as it anticipates active Covid-19 case numbers will drop over the next two weeks, and to give the tourism and hospitality industry time to prepare for potential visitors.
“For nearly two years, the tourism industry has scaled down and pivoted its operating models to try to sustain its core business. The GNWT is keenly aware of the industry’s sacrifices,” Caroline Wawzonek, NWT’s minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment said in a statement. “We are looking forward to seeing NWT businesses and operators finally welcome back visitors and show them how spectacular our territory truly is.”
Donna Lee Demarcke, chief executive of industry body NWT Tourism, said in an email to members that the organization plans to conduct a survey of tourism operators to better assist them with marketing and advocating for their needs.
“We are very pleased to be able to welcome visitors back to the NWT again,” she wrote. “Now the work begins to rebuild our industry in a safe way, allowing tourism to once again contribute to the economy of the NWT.”
With public health orders limiting tourists, many tourism businesses in the territory have struggled during the pandemic, and some have permanently shuttered their doors.
According to a report released by NWT Tourism in October, two of five responding tourism operators said they had to close either temporarily or completely. Among the 94 tourism businesses that responded, they reported a combined loss of 443 full-time and 405 part-time positions. More than half said they had laid off staff, and 70 per cent said their revenue had dropped by at least 50 percent.
Last month, Fort Smith Mayor Fred Daniels told councillors that “tourism is over.”
Rob Warburton, the president of Yellowknife’s Chamber of Commerce, recently called for an end to border restrictions, saying many businesses are struggling to survive after losing irreplaceable staff.
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, and Katrina Nokleby, the MLA for Great Slave, have publicly called for a firm date on when borders will be re-opened to tourists, after the territory scrapped plans to do so in December.
All travellers are required to have an approved self-isolation plan before entering the NWT to verify their vaccination status and support contact tracing efforts. They also must complete regular symptom checks.
The territory said there may be delays in processing self-isolation plans when leisure travel resumes. It recommends that travellers apply seven to 10 days before they intend to arrive in the NWT.