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The Yukon’s RV market is running on fumes

After a glacially slow start to the season, business has finally picked up at the Pioneer RV Park.In May and early June, the Pioneers’…

After a glacially slow start to the season, business has finally picked up at the Pioneer RV Park.

In May and early June, the Pioneers’ numbers were down 25 to 35 per cent from last summer, said owner Morris Kostiuk, who was busy juggling phone calls and customers on Thursday morning.

About two weeks ago, customers began pulling into the park, located on the Alaska Highway, and business has been “average” ever since.

“It’s going pretty good right now, but how long that’ll last I don’t know,” he said.

He’s noticed fewer recreational vehicles on the territory’s highways this season.

“There are definitely less RVs out there,” said Kostiuk, who attributes his park’s success to its recent loss of competition.

The closure of two local RV parks means that business at the remaining ones will stay average, said Kostiuk.

“We’re holding our own here because the other two parks shut down, but if they were open then we’d be really down,” he said.

Recent statistics from Yukon’s Tourism department confirm Kostiuk’s claim.

In May, more than 11 per cent fewer private vehicles — such as RVs, cars and motor homes — crossed the border into the Yukon.

But bus-tour traffic increased.

“It’s a picture that’s been painted over the past couple of years,” said Yukon’s Tourism director Pierre Germain.

“The independent, long-haul, Mr. and Mrs. Smith coming up from Arkansas and so forth, is declining,” he said.

A perfect storm of factors may be behind the shift.

High gas prices, a skyrocketing Canadian dollar, new passport regulations and changing demographics are shifting the face of the territory’s tourism industry.

More than 60 per cent of British Columbia drivers will change their plans for a road trip this summer, according to a recent survey conducted by the British Columbia Automobile Association.

A whopping 40 per cent said they’d cancel their driving plans entirely because of high prices at the gas pumps.

There have been conflicting reports on whether high gas prices will affect travellers’ driving habits, said Germain.

But the effect of changing demographics on the Yukon tourism market is undisputed.

As older travellers age, younger ones move in to take their places and they have different tastes, he said.

With the trend tipped toward bus tours comes another troubling statistic.

Tourists are staying in the territory for fewer days than they did one year ago.

Same-day travel increased by 15 per cent, or 3,220 travellers, while the number of visitors who stayed one or more nights dropped 15 per cent, or 1,604.

The average long-haul driver spends 2.3 days in the Yukon, said Germain.

Although it’s early in the season, May’s numbers can help forecast how the summer will pan out, said Tourism Industry Association executive director Patti Balsillie.

Overall, May’s statistics show a five per cent rise in visits to the territory.

“Any growth can be perceived as a relief because there are all kinds of things working against us,” said Balsillie.

While the city’s business sector seems to be going strong, local museums and tourist attractions have taken a hit.

In May and June, the MacBride Museum, located on the Whitehorse waterfront, had 26 per cent fewer visitors through its doors, said the museum board’s chair Hank Moorlag.

“We’re not seeing a lot of those at the museum,” he said.

“The tours keep those travellers fairly busy and, if the MacBride Museum is not on the agenda, it’s hard for them to come.”

That means less revenue and that’s something the board has been dealing with, said Moorlag.

Ongoing construction on Front Street also kept visitors away from the museum last summer.

“I’m concerned about the number of people who drive by and when it isn’t convenient for them to park, they keep going,” said Moorlag.

The Yukon Transportation Museum, on the Alaska Highway, has suffered similar problems.

Although spokesperson Casey McLaughlin could not put a number on the drop, the museum has seen its visitor numbers decline “substantially” over the past two summers, she said.

The museum is trying to work a deal with bus tour companies to make it a stop on their route.

“If you can get bus tours that’s where you’re going to get all your numbers now,” said McLaughlin.

“That’s what we’re going for — we’re trying to market ourselves toward bus tours,” she said.

Stats from the territory’s visitor information centres mirror those results.

Centres in Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Dawson and Beaver Creek saw huge drops in visitors.

Meanwhile, centres in Carcross —which has recently begun train service to Skagway — and Watson Lake have noticed substantial increases in visitation.

The SS Klondike also saw a slow start to its season, with numbers picking up in the past few weeks, said site superintendent Bob Lewis.

Visitation is down by 350 people from this time last year. But the season is shaping up to be very similar to last, he added.

Tourism is a key industry in the territory. Outsiders bring more than $164 million in revenue to the Yukon.

The Yukon’s primary tourism market is from the US. And the main mode of transportation for those tourists is the RV.

“That sector from the US market is huge in the Yukon,” said Balsillie.

Trends show the RV market heading up the highway and into Alaska will continue to drop.

Although the Yukon is losing that market, it’s grappling to attract other ones to the territory.

“Whenever there’s a downturn in one particular market sector you need to look for other opportunities for growth.”

“Fly-drives,” where visitors fly into the city then drive around the territory may be increasing, said Germain.

And the territory, and Alaska, must work to re-brand itself to attract new markets, said Balsillie.

The tourism association’s senior marketing committee met in May to develop recommendations that will be made public in the next six weeks, she said.

“RV sales in North America are skyrocketing — skyrocketing, but where are those people?” asked Balsillie.

“If those trends are true maybe those people don’t want to do long-haul and they’re just driving the heck out of the United States, which is fantastic.

“But we’d like them to come up the highway.”