Private sector may fill Parks Canada vacuum

A former tour guide at the S.S. Klondike is throwing his weight behind a tourism industry plea to find a private contractor to run public tours at the historic ship and Dawson's Dredge No. 4.

A former tour guide at the S.S. Klondike is throwing his weight behind a tourism industry plea to find a private contractor to run public tours at the historic ship and Dawson’s Dredge No. 4.

Last week the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon issued a call looking for any companies interested in taking over the guided tours, which have been canned for next season because of cutbacks to Parks Canada’s budget.

“We have less than five months before the operating season starts, and an operator would need to start training in January,” said Neil Hartling, the association’s chair.

“It’s almost a hopeless timeline, but one small thing we can do is put out this call so that if they do make this decision to go the private sector route, they already have a list of candidates that have been thinking about it.”

The sternwheeler tours were run by a private contractor from 1989 until 2005, when the service was taken over by Parks Canada staff.

Mike McLarnon held that contract for the last 11 of those years. He said he’s always supported having the tours run by a private company even though he has no interest in resuming the work himself.

“It is about time. Since Parks Canada resumed operations they have reduced hours of operation, reduced the amount of bilingual tours, raised the fees and shortened the season,” McLarnon wrote in an email to the Yukon News.

McLarnon said while he was running things, he had his contract extended twice because of all the positive visitor feedback and was paying Parks Canada an average of $7,000 a year in royalties and licensing fees. He estimates the cost for Parks to run the tours itself would be close to $150,000 a year.

The TIA’s call also has the backing of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

“We think it’s an excellent idea,” said chamber president Rick Karp.

“Why close them in the first place? This is so unique and a lot of money has been spent on the renovation to the dredge and fixing it up. It’s an attraction, it’s a business and it’s used by tourism to allow people to stay that extra day in town,” said Karp.

Karp and McLarnon both said that having a private contractor would be more efficient, and certainly preferable to having self-guided tours.

“What concerns me more, to tell you the truth, is health and safety,” said Karp, adding that unguided tours could pose a danger to the public if there is no one around to keep an eye on things.

“An engineer came to see me saying ‘You know, the upper level, those railings are only three feet high or something like that.’ He said he’s really concerned that we could have an accident,” said Karp.

While no decision has been made, Parks Canada does support the option of looking for contractors, said superintendent Anne Morin.

“It’s quite possible. For many years it was done through a contractor on the S.S. Klondike and then we were able to staff it with our own staff. Now we’re unable to do that,” she said.

Parks Canada currently plans to offer self-guided tours with enhanced audio and visual tools. Morin also said that safety options could include upgrades to the boat’s railings and staircases to ensure that visitors are safe.

Hartling said that so far he has had interest from one possible contractor, but that it was too early to discuss specifics.

Contact Jesse Winter at