New tourism project buoyed by big bucks and a big river

The construction of cabins that looked as though they’d been plucked from Jim Robb’s sketchbook created a buzz in Whitehorse last summer.

The construction of cabins that looked as though they’d been plucked from Jim Robb’s sketchbook created a buzz in Whitehorse last summer.

But the man behind the building, George Asquith, was mysteriously silent until Wednesday evening when he and his business partners officially launched Yukon’s latest tourism project, Great River Journeys.

The project takes wealthy travellers on an eight-day trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson; they bed down nights at the quirky tents and cabins along the way.

“We call it the rusted and crooked look — try to get a carpenter to build something like that,” quipped Asquith.

But the tents and cabins only appear rustic; inside they’re luxurious and offer full amenities.

The tour package will target affluent tourists, with daily rates running between $800 and $1,000.

The idea came from Asquith, who approached all levels of government, investors and Yukon First Nations that had their traditional territories along the river, for support.

The Kwanlin Dun First Nation, the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, the Selkirk First Nation and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in signed on to the project.

With more than $7.5 million already spent and budgeted in 2007 for building, development, marketing and training, the Great River Journey hasn’t been cheap.

The project is being buoyed with $1.75 million over two years from Ottawa, a $500,000 grant from the territory, $2 million from Yukon First Nations with help from the feds, and $3.4 million from 10 private investors, two of which are based in the Yukon, said Asquith.

“We’re breaking new ground here in partnering — we have four First Nations partnering here to come into tourism,” said Asquith during the project’s two-hour launch at the Yukon Transportation Museum.

The project involves exchanging funds, but also sharing cultures as the tour’s route runs 600 kilometres through the First Nations’ traditional territories.

“It gives us an opportunity to look at training, investment and employment opportunities,” said Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief Darren Taylor.

“But beyond that, it gives us the opportunity to tell our story in our traditional territory and showcase our people, our songs, our dances, our land and historic sites.”

“We look forward on our own terms and in our own way to sharing our history and culture with the guests,” said Ta’an Kwach’an deputy chief Gail Anderson.

“We are prepared to share the things we do everyday with them.

“Our chief often speaks of how an ordinary day at a fish camp became a special occasion because a Japanese visitor landed his canoe on the lakeshore and was so fascinated and thrilled when he was invited up for tea and bannock,” she added.

In its glossy marketing package, the trip is billed as an “eight-day wilderness safari down the Yukon River.”

“Each step of the journey takes the guest further back in time and deeper into the wilderness and deeper into the history and culture of the Yukon,” said Asquith.

“The facilities are just a prop. The real tour is out there; it’s the river, it’s the history, it’s the people.”

Guests begin the trip with a riverboat ride from Whitehorse to Lake Laberge, where they’ll stay two nights in cabins built to look like a paddlewheeler stop from the 1930s.

On the third day, it’s back on the riverboat for a ride down the Thirty Mile section of the Yukon River.

Then, from Steamboat Island, a floatplane will ferry passengers over Five Finger Rapids to Pelly Farms and Fort Selkirk.

On day five, travellers get back on the boat and head midway to Dawson City, where they will bed down for the night at cabins built to look like a trading spot of the 1850s.

Day six takes travellers into Dawson. On the eighth they fly back to Whitehorse.

The project is expected to create more than 30 full-time and seasonal jobs over five years, and more than $5 million in benefits to First Nations communities, said Asquith.

Summer 2007 will be a trial run in which staff will test their hospitality on patrons at a greatly reduced price.

Full operation and tours are slated to begin in 2008.

For now, the tour’s target market is wealthy Americans but Asquith hopes to expand its draw to Europe over the next few years.