Yukonomist: The internet has your Yukon adventure waiting for you

I’ve been to more than a few meetings over the years where Yukon tourism entrepreneurs mused about how great it would be if there was an easy-to-use digital platform that big numbers of potential visitors could use to quickly and conveniently book a place to stay and value-add local tours and activities.

It’s a tougher problem than it sounds.

You could build a website locally, but it’s a lot of work to build a platform that connects all the hotels and tourism operators, keeps everything up to date, let visitors make reservations online and handle error-free payments in 192 currencies. Furthermore, it’s not obvious how to get Outside travellers to find such a regional website amid the internet’s clutter.

Hotel chains have websites that are used by millions of people, but they tend to stick to promoting their own properties. Government tourism websites have to be cautious about promoting certain local businesses more prominently than others, and for incurring taxpayer liability if one of the independent tours goes wrong. Often, you can get a list of local tourism businesses and links to their websites, but you can’t book centrally or see quality ratings on the providers.

Enter Silicon Valley’s global travel behemoth, AirBnB, and its new “Adventures” line of business.

AirBnB ticks a bunch of the boxes of that mythical digital platform I mentioned above. Does it have big numbers of users? Yes, over 150 million.

Can you book accommodation? Tick. I randomly checked some dates in August, and it offered 86 properties in Whitehorse alone, ranging from downtown basement suites to entire suburban homes to quirky properties full of Yukon character. Forty-three of the properties are run by AirBnB “superhosts.”

What about offering a quick and easy way to book local tours and activities, so a bunch more tourist dollars stick around in our community? You bet. You can click on a tour that looks interesting, see the photos and blurbs, then check available dates and book.

Is it easy to use? Extremely. AirBnB’s army of user experience engineers have been working for years to make the website’s design visually attractive and easy to use. In fact, it is almost alarmingly easy to book a tour. Your credit card is already loaded in the platform, and as soon as you pick a date the alluring red “confirm and pay” button pops up.

The platform also appears to be easy to use for tourism operators too. They just have to upload photos and blurbs into pre-designed templates, so even grizzled wilderness guides who know more about mountain climbing than marketing can look good online.

AirBnB also offers local restaurant suggestions, powered by recommendations by Whitehorse hosts. Eyeballing the list, it reflects my favourite places in Whitehorse a lot better than Yelp’s or TripAdvisor’s recommendations.

AirBnB has offered small-scale local “experiences” for awhile. But now it is expanding into what it calls “adventures,” or, in marketing-speak: “One-of-a-kind activities hosted by locals.”

You can go from the “golden deserts” of Oman to “warrior camp” in Kenya to “Alaskan wilderness dogsledding” or a “snow cave overnight tour” near Squamish. You can also do the “Talking Trees-Indigenous Walking Tour” in Vancouver, or go looking for Sasquatches in Washington State.

The Yukon “adventure” is offered by Canadian Outback Rafting of Squamish and is a 10-day rafting trip on the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers for $6,292.

For those with less free time or money, you can also enjoy the “Canadian Bush Flying coming alive” tour. It offers a three-hour tour of vintage planes at the Transportation Museum, current models at Schwatka Lake and a visit to the air tanker base. It is hosted by a former Yukon bush pilot and costs $135, including food and drink.

Or perhaps you would prefer the “Erleben Sie die Welt der Kanadischen Buschpiloten und ihrer Maschinen” version of the tour? It’s available on AirBnB.de for €93.

AirBnB also offers a nature walk experience for $195 at the Wildlife Preserve and Takhini Hot Springs, and an “Aurora hunting” nature walk for $185.

This is revolutionary. The old model was to spray government tourism ads across southern television screens and hope someone liked them enough to research the Yukon and then independently contact local hotels and operators. Now you have visually compelling marketing being delivered to eyeballs who are actively searching for adventure on one of their favourite travel websites, and whose credit card details are just a couple of clicks away.

Combine this with Air North’s success in driving down airfares, which has stimulated a huge amount of tourism travel, and there is real potential here.

AirBnB doesn’t solve all our problems of course. It’s Adventures business is still new and relatively small, and we still have to compete with the golden deserts of Oman and Alaskan dogsledders. AirBnB’s definition of “local” is flexible, including in the Yukon’s case rafting companies from Squamish. And, like other disruptive Silicon Valley upstarts, AirBnB doesn’t put much effort into playing nice with local stakeholders. Yukon industry associations and our government have zero control over the platform’s marketing messages or content. AirBnB isn’t even mentioned in the Yukon’s 2018 Tourism Development Strategy.

But for Yukon tourism entrepreneurs with a good product and some digital marketing skills, AirBnB could be a lucrative opportunity to reach large numbers of new travelers.

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 and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.