Suppose you were an affluent city dweller, somewhere in the world, and you wanted to go on vacation off the beaten path. Suppose again you have an interest in the North, perhaps a desire to see the white nights, northern lights or some of the magnificent landscapes that wowed the millions who watched BBC’s Frozen Planet.
Where would you go?
The Yukon spends millions every year in tourism marketing, trying to awaken the desire to visit the Yukon or convince people to choose us instead of our rivals.
It’s a competitive business, with our competitors also spending millions targeted at the same potential tourists. It’s critical to keep tabs on what the other players are doing, especially new ones trying to shoulder their way into the market.
So I was interested when a European friend mentioned tourism in northern Russia. I decided to check out what Yamal was doing. For those who aren’t familiar with the region from the medals their impressive ski and biathlon teams won in the Arctic Winter Games here, Yamal is our Russian competitor in the northern-taiga-adventure-tourism category.
Yamal is roughly the same size as the Yukon, although it has 10 times more people. It’s about two and a half hours by plane northeast of Moscow.
My first instinct was to dismiss Yamal. Images of staying in a hotel run by Borat came to mind. But I tried to be dispassionate. After all, the Big 3 American automakers dismissed Japanese cars at first, and we know how that turned out.
Yamal’s new website welcome2yamal.ru, their equivalent of travelyukon.com and aimed at English- and German-speaking markets, has some eye-catching images. Parts of it look a lot like the Yukon, right down to the species of fish you can catch. There are even some weird parallels with Whitehorse, such as an airplane on a pedestal by the Salekhard airport and an old steam locomotive (although theirs is a Gulag memorial, a more sombre thing to visit than Engine 51 at MacBride Museum).
They also have some things we don’t have, such as a preserved 42,000-year-old baby mammoth named Lyuba, which you may recall from National Geographic. It is their star attraction. The Polar Urals region is increasingly popular with climbers and extreme wilderness adventurers. As the location of one of Stalin’s biggest camp complexes, they also attract a certain number of historically-minded tourists (Gulag by Anne Applebaum seems to be required pre-trip reading according to more than one visitor).
In one major misstep, Borat does seem to have made an appearance as their web-translator. Yamal’s slogan in English is “Plan your trip to the edge of the deer, tents and Northern Lights.” Yukonomist’s Moscow agent says that the slogan actually sounds good in Russian. And who knows how our “Larger than Life” slogan, widely criticized here for being too generic and not highlighting anything unique about the Yukon, sounds in Russian?
On the plus side, Yamal has tried hard to make it easy to connect with activities and tours. People in the trade call this “day product.” You can spend the day with reindeer herders, enjoy cultural activities with local Nenets indigenous peoples, go rafting on the Sob River, see the northern lights or go ATVing.
The exchange rate helps Yamal too. The ruble has fallen by half against the U.S. dollar in the last two years. The recent travel restrictions to Egypt and Turkey put in place by the Putin regime may also help, especially when combined with what looks like a government campaign to encourage patriotic domestic vacations. Our source reports that Valentina Matviyenko, chair of the Russian Federation State Council, recommended a Turkmenistan vacation recently. And Oleg Safonov, head of the Russian tourism agency, criticized fellow Russians for flocking to sunny vacation spots (despite, it turned out, owning two beach homes in the Seychelles himself).
Yamal’s weak spots emerge when you stray from the official marketing message to Tripadvisor and other social media. The comments on some Yamal hotels are alarming, and the region’s tourist infrastructure looks extremely challenging for independent tourists who don’t speak Russian. The airlines don’t look like they match Air North’s level of safety and service. Some regions still require special government permits, a throwback to Soviet-era travel restrictions. Most people would require a tour company to navigate the region.
Overall, Yamal does not seem likely to eat the Yukon’s lunch any time soon. But it is trying hard. The Nenets people have signed a strategic partnership with Yamaltour to boost tourism to their region. And local government officials know that falling oil prices make economic diversification more important than ever. In 10 years, if Yamal continues to invest in tourist infrastructure and hires marketing firms as good as the ones the Yukon uses, the situation may be different.
When you look across the tourism marketing efforts of Alaska, N.W.T., Greenland, Iceland, the Nordic countries and Russia, there is no shortage of northern “product” out there. The last thing the Yukon needs is more competition. According to the Yukon’s official October 2015 economic forecast, Yukon tourists in 2014’s core summer season (May to September) were down 2.9 per cent compared to the year before. Border crossings, a rough indicator of visitorship, were around 300,000 in 2000 and have grown only to around 350,000 15 years later.
Significantly growing the Yukon tourism industry in the face of these challenges will not be easy, especially since our competitors are not standing still.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show.