Tourism fades in Faro

Miners’ ghosts drifting between the rows of abandoned houses are not the only things haunting Faro.

Miners’ ghosts drifting between the rows of abandoned houses are not the only things haunting Faro.

The tiny hamlet lost its only gas station last fall.

Its store had shrunk dramatically.

And tourism numbers are plummeting.

But not according to Faro’s mayor.

“The numbers aren’t down,” said Michelle Vainio.

“I don’t know who they’re talking to.”

But the Faro visitor centre numbers keep dropping.

“I’ve been here six years and it’s the worst I’ve seen,” said centre supervisor Sabine Heigl.

Last July, Faro saw 650 tourists. This July only 540 visited the community.

Six years ago, Heigl was seeing 800 to 900 tourists in July.

A number of factors are contributing to the drop, she said.

There’s the high price of fuel and the loss of Faro’s gas station last fall. But the biggest problem is the terrible condition of the Robert Campbell Highway, she said.

Pothole problems

“We can’t send people up or down that highway,” said Heigl.

“It’s in bad shape.”

Upgrading the highway would improve tourism across the territory, because tourists would be able to make a loop; it would attract more people, she added.

But right now the ditches aren’t even cut out, said Heigl.

“It’s really dangerous, and if you go into a curve, you can’t see anything.”

It’s so bad even the locals won’t use it, added Vainio.

“So you get these poor unsuspecting people in big motor homes on it, and that’s tough.”

The Robert Campbell was better in 1975 than it is now, said Faro public works foreman Pat McCracken.

Sitting around a picnic table toying with a flare, McCracken and his crew shared stories.

One guy tore the front end right off his truck, said utility operator Dean Holmes.

The front end was up on the road and the truck was down in the ditch.

Two months ago, McCracken drove the Robert Campbell to Watson in his Dodge 4X4.

“And I kept bottoming out,” he said.

“That road should be closed, because any poor tourist driving that road ….”

There wasn’t a single piece of equipment working on the road, added McCracken.

There are three road crews, one in Ross River, one at Tuchitua and one in Watson Lake.

They work 10-hour shifts, he said.

“So, how can you go for 10 hours and not see a single piece of equipment?”

The Yukon government is spending $31 million, on a three-year project to upgrade the Robert Campbell Highway.

But that work is only happening from Tuchitua to Watson, he said.

“They are accommodating the (Cantung) mine,” said McCracken.

“The current road is not well equipped to sustain significant mine traffic,” said Highways and Public Works spokesperson Karla Ter Voert in a previous News interview.

“And this work now will help the existing mine be able to utilize the road better, especially with weight issues.”

“Taxpayers should be concerned, because the government is looking after the road here for the mine,” said McCracken

“The mine should be putting some money in,” said Vainio.

“That way, it would free up more money to repair other areas.”

Vainio doesn’t drive the road.

“I just have a Jimmy,” she said.

Ain’t seen fuel yet

After a suspicious fire destroyed Faro’s gas station in the fall, Vainio has to drive to Ross River or Carmacks to fill up her Jimmy.

“We’ve heard we’re getting a gas station for the last four months,” said Phyllis Shaw.

“But we ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The longtime Faroite is co-owner of the only restaurant, bar and hotel in town.

The loss of the gas station has had a huge effect on business, she said.

It’s hard enough running a restaurant in a town of 400.

Now, with tourism plummeting, it’s next to impossible.

“If there’s still no gas station by next summer, we’ll be in big trouble,” said Shaw.

“This winter, we’ll be in trouble.”

There’s never been much tourism in Faro, said grocery and hardware owner Mel Smith, who downsized dramatically last summer.

“But it was improving.

“Now, without a service station, people bypass Faro and head into Ross River to get gas.”

It’s not just the loss of the gas pump, said McCracken.

Faro also lost its service station in the fire.

Now tourists can’t get tires fixed, or little mechanical problems solved.

The town garage will supply gas to those who desperately need it, added McCracken, who also does tire repairs.

“But we’re not insured to help take the tires off the vehicle,” he said.

And the town can’t sell gas.

Instead it asks those running dry for a donation for the 20 litres needed to get them to Ross River or Carmacks.

“I wish the town could do more, but our hands are tied,” said Vainio.

It’s up to business owners to set up gas stations, she said.

Currently, Faro zoning only allows gas stations on corner lots.

“So, we’re looking at a zoning amendment so fuel facilities can be in industrial areas,” said Vainio.

Smith has been approached by someone interested in setting up pumps outside his hardware and grocery.

“Right now if someone is ready to go, there’s no place to put it,” he said.

The corner lots are owned by Petro Canada and North of 60 and they won’t let anyone else in, said Smith.

If all goes well, that amendment will be passed in the fall, after all the proper procedures have been followed, said Vainio.

“We’re going on a year (without gas) and it’s been tough,” she added.

“But Faroites are a tough bunch and they’ve lived through many shutdowns.

“It’s shown how the community can pull together with neighbours helping each other out.”

The loss of the gas station has also helped out Ross River.

“A lot of people from Faro come here once a week to get gas and stock up on groceries,” said Ross River Service Centre manager Murray Reid.

Since Faro lost its gas, Reid’s seen a 10 to 15 per cent increase in gas customers.

“People are popping in all the time from Faro,” he said, restocking groceries on Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s definitely helped our business,” added Dene General Store manager Cathy Jones.

“We have more people coming filling barrels of gas.”

“What with the gas station and the road conditions, the government isn’t doing much in terms of promoting or helping to keep the community alive,” said McCracken.

“Anything would be better than what they’ve done so far.”