Air yachts: The next big thing in Yukon luxury tourism?

Oh, the amenities!

It’s one of the great unsolved riddles of Yukon economic development: how do you show ultra rich travellers — the holy grail of tourism — the magic of the Yukon, while keeping them pampered in the cocoon of fine wine, filet mignon, feather beds and high-speed internet to which they are accustomed?

The sternwheelers did a pretty good job of it (other than the wifi), as you can see from old photos of high-end tourists on their way to Atlin on the S.S. Tutshi. You could lounge all day as the scenery drifted by, and enjoy a fine meal in the evening.

Sadly, the sternwheelers will never come back. The bridges are too low, the operating costs too high, and even the leisure class are too busy to spend five days steaming upstream from Dawson City.

One option is the luxury lodge, complete with chef, sommelier and fishing guide. This business model works, but the market is restricted to the more adventurous ultra rich who relish a floatplane ride or having their fillings rattled out on one of our dirt roads.

There’s also the problem that you have to invest big bucks in the lodge, but then can only make money a few months of the year. With the possible exception of a few Russian oligarchs with fond memories of their boyhood days in Siberia, few of today’s mega-rich show much interest in ice fishing. And while dog-sledding and backcountry skiing are growing in popularity, the winter market remains much smaller than summer’s.

Some rivers in Europe have low-slung riverboats that glide under bridges. These have lots of windows and even glass roofs, so you can sit back and watch the castles go by.

However, most are too small to have comfortable beds or a top-notch kitchen. Guests usually stop overnight to stretch their legs, enjoy dinner in a local restaurant with a Michelin star or two, and sleep in a high-end hotel.

This is a problem in the Yukon. A few years ago, Great River Journeys invested heavily to offer a six-day luxury adventure along the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson. They built three high-end lodges along the way, at Upper Laberge, near Fort Selkirk and finally Crystal Creek.

While the trip looked fantastic in the brochures, it must have been very expensive to build multiple lodges and staff them with skilled hospitality workers. Great River Journeys quickly ran into financial difficulties, probably exacerbated by the recession in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and went out of business.

The fact that no one has picked up the lodges to run luxury river trips subsequently suggests the economics of summer-only luxury river cruises are challenging.

If only there were a way to transport tourists in comfortable style, without having to build fancy accommodation and kitchens in the middle of nowhere.

Enter the air yacht. Hybrid Air Vehicles of Britain has built a modern blimp with a passenger gondola that looks more like a luxury yacht than a platform for filming football games. Branded as the Airlander 10, it is a self-contained unit for transporting guests and everything they want. It has glass floors and 360-degree windows, a cocktail bar and bedrooms. Guests can stroll around the 20 metre-long cabin with their chilled Veuve Cliquot as they watch the landscape roll by underneath.

The airships cruise at up to 150 kilometres per hour. The Whitehorse to Dawson run becomes an afternoon outing instead of a week-long saga. The Airlander 10 is designed to carry fuel for five days so, unlike a river boat, side excursions to land on a glacier or watch a herd of caribou on a distant mountainside are possible. You can also fly low and quietly hover.

Imagine the delight of New York hedge fund managers and their spouses as they slow cruise over the majestic annual migration of the Porcupine caribou herd, before going polar bear watching off the Yukon’s north coast.

The modern airship industry dislikes comparisons with the infamous Hindenburg, the German hydrogen-filled airship that burst into flames spectacularly in 1937 and incinerated 35 passengers and crew while the newsreel cameras rolled. Today’s airships are filled with helium, which doesn’t burn. And they have sophisticated multi-directional propeller systems that allow pilots to control them much better, even in high wind.

Accountants like another feature of the airship: in the off-season, you can fly it somewhere else and generate cash flow all year long. Unlike the S.S. Klondike, which spent over half the year dragged up on the frozen shore, an Airlander 10 might do trips in the Yukon in the summer and spend the winter floating its cargo of people, money and champagne around California and the Caribbean.

It’s an intriguing idea. However, the catch is the cost. Hybrid Air Vehicles is reported to be planning to charge about $40 million per airship. That’s not far off what a new Boeing 737 costs.

Airlines fly their 737s with more than a hundred passengers several times a day for decades to recover the capital cost, and don’t serve fancy meals. Spreading the cost over just a dozen or two guests will make the experience very expensive indeed.

So don’t expect to see a fleet of luxury airships hovering over Dawson City any time soon. But if you find the motherlode or turn out to be the long-lost heir to a billion-dollar fortune, having your own air yacht looks like a very fun way to get rid of some money.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.


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