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Tourism operators say winter season outlook is bleak without border openings

The Tourism Association is urging the government that borders should be reopened
Tourists watch as the aurora lights up the sky over Whitehorse in 2016. The Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon is calling on the government to ease border restrictions to help tour operators cope with devastating COVID-19 business losses. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

The Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon is calling on the government to ease border restrictions to help tour operators cope with devastating COVID-19 business losses.

On Aug. 24 the group sent a letter to Premier Sandy Silver, Tourism Minister Jeanie Dendys and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley requesting an expansion of the existing travel bubble.

As guides and owners gear up for an unpredictable winter season the association is urging the government that low case levels over the summer indicate tourism should be reopened.

“The B.C. bubble gave us a chance to demonstrate that we could host people coming in with all of the measures that are being taken,” said Association Chair Neil Hartling. “There was one reported case, which was contained quickly. It was textbook management and demonstrated that the territory is able to handle incidents of COVID.”

Hartling said the relatively small number of domestic winter tourists would be manageable, while not having them could be devastating for many operators. He said business owners need some idea of the future as they face decisions on whether to keep facilities open, hire staff and whether or not to spend on marketing.

At a press conference on Sept. 10 Hanley acknowledged “it is definitely a challenge to reconcile” the safety measures of COVID-19 and the impact on the tourism market.

“This is just a bad year for tourism. And I think it’s going to continue into winter to be a bad year for tourism,” he said. “I think in general, we have to take a longer-term approach.”

“It is a difficult thing to establish certainty when we’re really looking at phenomena that change from week to week. So I hear the concerns and we’ll do what we can to at least let people know what we’re thinking. But establishing a firm deadline at this point is not possible. It’s not realistic,” he said.

The Yukon opened its border with British Columbia and the other territories in June, allowing people from the province to visit without the strict two-week quarantine mandated for other places of origin.

Since that decision, case numbers in Quebec, Alberta and Ontario have continued to rise, while British Columbia recently began rolling back some Phase 3 opening decisions after seeing cases spike. The Yukon has only seen one positive case likely transmitted from travellers.

Community Services Minister John Streicker said Dendys is in talks with federal, territorial and provincial counterparts to talk about tourism solutions.

Torsten Eder, who runs Northern Tales Travel Services, said the government’s response has been frustrating.

He said he realizes there is no solution to losing international revenue but said in a normal year his company makes 30 per cent of revenue from domestic tourists. Eder said he doesn’t understand why the provinces have open borders but Yukon remains strictly controlled.

“What happens if it takes a year or two for herd immunity to happen even with a vaccine, are they going to stay closed for the next two or three years? I think there’s no long term plan,” he said.

Tourism and mining are the territories two largest private-sector industries. In 2014, tourism activities in Yukon accounted for 5.3 per cent of its business sector GDP and 18.4 per cent of its business sector jobs, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

While gold prices have risen during the pandemic summer and the Yukon government has made no mass layoffs, tourism has been the industry hit hardest by the pandemic. In a report released in June, the Bureau of Statistics projected a loss of up to 96 per cent this year.

Eder said he’d like to see more empathy from Yukon residents who have been able to keep their steady paychecks despite the pandemic.

“I wish they would be able to put themselves into our shoes and imagine that after six months now having no income or just government support, how would they then evaluate the situation and decide?” he said.

Many winter tourism operators that manage large dog teams are feeling extra pressure since fixed costs like food and vet bills don’t disappear despite the lack of tourists.

“I can’t just tell the dogs you know, I’m sorry, but we have no guests so we’re all going on a diet now,” said Manuela Larsen, operator of Muktuk Adventures.

The company has 130 dogs. Larsen said government relief programs from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Yukon government are the only thing covering food costs, vet bills and electricity.

“It just covers the dog costs, but it doesn’t cover any of the other fixed costs and so we are definitely really hoping for the winter season to be somewhat successful. Border openings within Canada certainly would be helpful for tourism, but it’s tough on both sides.

“In our business, there’s always uncertainty. If we have a bad winter with not a whole lot of snow it’s easy for us to adjust there because if we don’t have snow, we just go on wheels. There’s something we can do. But right now we just have nobody coming,” she said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at