After two years, the Northwest Territories is open again to all tourists. For those tourism-based businesses still standing, that brings a collective sigh of relief.
On Tuesday, the NWT government’s Covid-19 Secretariat confirmed tourists can now visit the territory after the easing of pandemic-related travel restrictions that had existed, in one form or another, since mid-March 2020.
Tourists still need to file a self-isolation plan, even though in almost all cases you won’t need to isolate on arrival in the territory.
“I’m relieved and ecstatic for the businesses that have been so impacted for the past 24 months,” said Donna Lee Demarcke, chief executive officer of NWT Tourism, the territory’s industry body for tour operators.
“It’s a big sense of relief to see that we’re coming out of where we’ve been.”
Wendy Grater, who owns wilderness adventure company Black Feather, said she had been cautiously taking bookings but warning clients not to book air travel or make any non-refundable purchases.
“We were totally prepared to do refunds and defer things,” she said, “so it’s very exciting to be able to go to our clients and say, ‘Hey, your dream trip is going to happen.’”
Before the pandemic, the NWT’s tourism industry had been enjoying something of a meteoric rise. While the sector still earns a fraction of the revenue attributed to mining, tourism brought 120,000 visitors to the territory in 2018-19 who spent a record-breaking $210 million, up from $147 million four years earlier.
“We were going onwards and upwards. We were on a great trajectory,” said Demarcke.
A tourist’s perspective
For tourists, understanding what can and cannot be done in the Northwest Territories may now be simpler.
Previously, an exemption allowed some tourists to visit the territory if they agreed to isolate at remote lodges. Most tourism was effectively banned, though family members could apply to “reunify” with relatives in the NWT. Tourists coming from beyond Canada must navigate federal rules before reaching the territory.
Peter Engelschion, a Norwegian tourist, first visited the NWT as part of an effort to retrace the steps of Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad. He has since made many more visits and hoped to come again in the summer of 2022 but, writing before Tuesday’s shift in guidance, said the territory’s Covid-19 messaging was confusing.
“From the Norwegian perspective, the current guidance to enter into Canada and connect into the NWT is not easy to understand,” he said by email. “The usage of ArriveCAN [a federal app] with self-isolation plan, Covid test before, and especially the process when entering into Canada and the NWT is very unclear.
“All this leads Norwegians to postpone again and I think, worst case, to terminate the whole trip.”
Engelschion expected his party to pay $9,000 per person – running to more than $50,000 in total – on guides, gear, food and transportation.
Counting only Norwegian tourists, he estimated the overall loss to Yellowknife businesses in one season would be up to $250,000 if the rules were not simplified. Ordinarily, most of the NWT’s foreign tourism comes from nations like Japan, South Korea, China, and the United States.
“We did go through that [application] process but, after gauging the interest from our clients, we decided to just open it up to NWT residents, have a short staycation season, finish up our renovations and focus on 2022,” he said.
Now, things are looking up. Frontier Lodge took a leap of faith that the territory would reopen this summer and booked many customers whose trips had been on hold for the past two years.
“We’re booked solid for this year except for a new women’s wellness retreat opening in June,” said Myers.
A struggle remains
For many businesses, Tuesday’s news came too late.
Rosie Strong, former owner of Yellowknife walking tour firm Strong Interpretation, had to close her business in 2020.
“I loved what I did. I loved showing this place off to people, seeing it through their eyes, and being part of this very dynamic industry. It’s been a real gift. I’ll miss it,” Strong said.
While some have been able to survive two lean years and consider reopening, Strong said that’s not the case for many. “I’m in my late fifties now and I don’t have 10 years that I want to put into building a business that will boom on year 10,” she said. “It’s time to appreciate what I had and start the next chapter.”
Yoshi Otsuka, owner of Nanook Aurora Tours, also struggled during the pandemic and can’t see that changing soon.
“It’s really tough. I have another job right now, I’m working different jobs. I sold my house. I was leasing a vehicle, and I returned that. I still have a camera and winter clothing. So that’s it,” he said.
He too has customers who have pushed their bookings ahead from previous years. As his customer base is almost exclusively Japanese, his business relies on Japan’s Covid-19 recovery, too, and that makes it difficult to say when those postponed trips will happen.
“In Japan, the situation with Covid-19 is not so good,” Otsuka said. “They’re telling me maybe late summer, August or September, or maybe the end of the year.
“And the Japanese economy is going down as well. People are suffering. They can’t afford to travel to Yellowknife. Not like they did before Covid, anyway. I think it’ll take a long time to recover.”
More frustrating still, many of those clients have already rebooked in places where restrictions eased sooner.
“I talked with another agency in Vancouver and there are a lot of Japanese students there, a lot of tourists, and they decided to go to Whitehorse instead of Yellowknife,” said Otsuka.
“I know two companies in Whitehorse that were fully booked through February and March. I’m just hoping everything gets lifted by April so I can start advertising again.”
Aurora Village, a popular tourist destination outside Yellowknife, said by email it would remain closed to tourists this winter season and probably would not reopen before August. Locals who may be interested in a March staycation can still book.
“The reopening announcement came a little too late and too last-minute to the end of the season for us. We just missed the typically peak month of February,” the company wrote.
“Although March is typically also a busy month, everything drastically slows down in April. Unfortunately, restarting for just one month of business, after two years of closure, does not make much sense.
“Needless to say, our operation is not just about firing up a few vans and minibuses but a very comprehensive set of operations and trained team of our crew.”
‘Keeping that dream alive’
Other operators agree that recovery cannot be instant.
“I think it’s going to take longer than a year,” said Demarcke at NWT Tourism.
“On one hand, there’s a lot of pent-up demand. We can see through the interaction on social media, with our call centre, and on our website that there are a lot of people who want to visit the Northwest Territories. I think our marketing team did a fantastic job of keeping that dream alive for the past two years.
“But I also think there’s still hesitation around travelling. People are uncertain about safety and a bit unclear about what the rules are. So I think it’ll take a little while for people to start moving freely.”
At Black Feather, Grater agrees. “If you look at anything else like this, like 9/11, or major financial downturns that had a big effect on the economy, it’s often up to five years before things go back to a normal state,” she said.
But Grater, like many, expressed appreciation for the atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration between small businesses during a time of difficulty for the industry – and hope that the difficult lessons of the past year will result in greater strength going forward.
“We’ve learned that tourism can touch all 33 communities in the Northwest Territories, and it has the opportunity to provide the residents of those communities with meaningful work,” said Demarcke.
“There’s not another industry like that.
“We are going to rebuild the tourism industry, but I also think we have an opportunity to build it back even better than it was.”