A Main Street business shows its new hours cut back due to COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 31. Tourism operators in the territory have been told not to get their hopes up for eased travel restrictions, although the government says nothing is certain and extended relief programs will aid struggling businesses. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Business relief program expanded, TIA told travel restrictions likely to remain until spring

The Yukon government has extended the business relief program

Tourism operators in the territory have been told not to get their hopes up for eased travel restrictions, although the government says nothing is certain and extended relief programs will aid struggling businesses.

Tourism Industry Association chair Neil Hartling said the Association was told last week by the Chief Medical Officer of Health that “no one should expect any additional openings until next spring at the earliest.”

He said the government acknowledged that if circumstances saw a dramatic change that plan could still change, but warned that the likelihood is low.

Hartling said based on that advice he has advised his members not to invest money into a winter season if they were depending on travel restrictions easing.

In a statement, Tourism Minister Jeanie Dendys told the News that the government “cannot make definitive statements about when the bubble will be expanding.”

“We understand the industry is seeking certainty, however we continue to adapt and respond to the ever-changing pandemic situation,” Dendys said. “The preservation of our local tourism economy is forefront in our minds.”

Not all operators have been satisfied with the closures, but Hartling said he has been pleased with the territorial government’s willingness to work towards solutions, despite the impact of travel restrictions that require those outside the bubble to isolate for two weeks.

“I do have to hand it to both the Department of Tourism and ministers on how fast they’re willing to turn on these things that normally would take many times longer to bring into effect,” he said, referring to extended relief programs.

“Operators would far rather be earning their way out of this than accepting relief, but in lieu of that opportunity at least it’s a lifeline to survival,” Hartling said.

On Sept. 24 Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai said the government is extending business relief programs until March 31, 2021 with key changes aimed at helping the tourism industry.

Eligible businesses can now receive up to $100,000 over the 12-month duration of the program, which was originally planned to wrap up in August. This is in addition to the $100,000 available through the federal government’s Northern Business Relief Fund.

The restrictions on how businesses can use the funds have been expanded.

Costs being covered have been expanded to include accrued monthly property taxes, animal feed, veterinarian costs, aviation insurance, business insurance, commercial rent and leases, electricity and heating fuel, licences, mortgage interest on owned business premises and payment on assets.

When it was originally introduced only businesses who had seen revenues decline by at least 30 per cent due to COVID-19 were eligible. In this round applicants only need to prove that they are operating at a deficit, where expenses exceed revenue.

“We’re really just trying to get people to a point where they’re at a break-even. We want them to be able to pay their bills and sustain themselves to get through this,” Pillai said.

To date the program has provided more than $5.1 million to 434 Yukon businesses. Pillai said the next two weeks will be critical in assessing how much the second wave of support will cost.

“Right now we’re doing a lot of work to identify how many businesses are vulnerable,” Pillai said.

More details are still to be determined. Pillai indicated that if the uptick for the program is slow, more money may be able to be allocated to the tourism industry specifically.

“If we only have a small amount of people applying for this money, but they’re in real dire shape, because they’re in the tourism sector, I may have to go back to my colleagues and ask for some changes in the program,” Pillai said.

Hartling also said the government expressed a willingness to work with operators who would be able to isolate their guests from the Yukon population in the same way hunting outfitters and the mining industry have been operating.

“It just remains to be seen if anybody’s going to be able to adapt to that. I guess it was an indication that there is a willingness to be creative for the small number who might be able to meet that,” he said.

The Yukon government released an updated Yukon Tourism Visitation Report on Sept. 22 tracking entry into the territory. Airport arrivals are down 96 per cent, international overnight visitors are down 88 per cent.

Pillai said despite the tourism downturn the territory is expected to see an overall positive GDP growth this year.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com