Yukonomist: Will tourism roar back this summer?

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Will this be the summer that tourism comes roaring back to the Yukon? Or will visitors be lured by European cities and Asian beaches, which they won’t have to share with locked down Chinese or sanctioned Russian vacationers?

Perhaps, even worse in the long run, has the pandemic taught former tourists the charms of local activities and frugal staycations?

Traveller attitudes can change quickly, but as of March international tourist travel was still down dramatically compared to pre-pandemic days. The Worth Tourism Organization reported that international tourist arrivals in the Americas were down 52 per cent compared to 2019. That’s an improvement, but not a huge one, over the 68 per cent decline in 2020.

Europe was down a similar amount, but Asia-Pacific was still down 93 per cent. Asian destinations are still feeling the effect of strong travel restrictions in China and some other populous Asian countries.

The most recent Statistics Canada data is from the last quarter of 2021. At that point, total tourism spending was down a third compared to the same period in 2019. Of this, domestic tourist spending was down 26 per cent while international spending was down 61 per cent.

Lifting border restrictions will cut both ways this summer. Foreign tourists will be able to visit the Yukon. But Yukoners and other Canadians will also find it easier to go abroad.

This researcher remains baffled as to why so many Canadians prefer to take a summer trip to stroll in Paris or lounge on a Phuket beach instead of hiking in the Yukon. But despite the mystery, these consumer preferences are a constant herringbone uphill for our tourism industry.

The onslaught of social media and digital advertising on Southern Canadians’ phones reinforces the trend. For example, the travel section of the Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper, published 35 stories on its website in the first four months of 2022. I found zero about the Yukon, although Aurora viewing in Yellowknife and indigenous tourism in Northern Alberta are at least in our general direction.

While there were stories on Banff, Quebec City, Tofino, Whistler and St. John’s, most of the pieces highlighted foreign destinations: New Zealand, Warsaw, Barbuda, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico, Cambodia, Maryland, Italy and more.

Air North is doing its bit with its regular cheap flights to Vancouver and Calgary, both core markets and connections for travellers from farther away. This summer, thanks again to Air North, Torontonians and Ottawans will enjoy something tourists from Frankfurt have enjoyed for years: flights to Whitehorse.

However, pandemic-related turbulence continues. White Pass announced that cross-border rail travel would remain cancelled this summer. International travel requirements remain complicated, especially for foreign travellers with vaccines not used in Canada or vaccination documents requiring official translation. Travel insurance is still expensive and, for some, difficult to obtain.

We should all hope for a busy season for our tourism industry, but I suspect business might remain soft.

In this case, we Yukoners may have yet another summer where our most awesome experiences will be even less crowded than normal.

If your pandemic online shopping included new hiking boots, paddle or mountain bike, this is the summer to put them to good use.

If you don’t have a personal list of trips from growing up here, Yukonhiking.ca is a great place to find well mapped hiking options. Each trail has information on distance, elevation gain and difficulty.

Take the opportunity to visit a part of the Yukon where you haven’t spent much time. Tombstone Park, for example, is spectacular. The park requires you to book a campsite. The online reservation system shows dates in July and August already booking up.

When was the last time you paddled the Yukon River to Dawson or rafted on the Tatshenshini? Local outfits offer a wide range of rentals and guided trips on the Yukon’s rivers. Some prominent local companies include Tatshenshini Expediting, Kanoe People and Up North Adventures.

Mountain biking adventures abound in the Yukon. In addition to the excellent trails around Whitehorse, there is the Montana Mountain Trail network near Carcross.

If your recent bike outings have seemed humdrum, you can indulge in a two-wheeled character-building exercise with an overnight pedal along the 82-kilometre Cottonwood Trail in Kluane. Be sure to inquire with the Parks Canada staff about trail conditions and how often you will get the opportunity to build upper-body muscles by carrying your bike over obstacles.

You could also make this the summer to try something new.

If you’re looking for an excuse for a bit more pandemic shopping, how about some new binoculars? The Yukon Bird Club offers field trips and blogs with the latest avian news, such as the arrival of the Mountain Bluebird. Their Twitter handle, @yukonbirds, is full of striking photos.

Or maybe a new fishing rod? There’s nothing like enjoying a fresh grayling dinner on a driftwood campfire. The Yukon Fish and Game Association has lots of tips and information for novices and veterans alike.

You might even make up for that woeful lack of Yukon travel coverage in the Outside media. Invite a friend or two from the big city to make some Yukon memories together, and help our friends in the Yukon tourism industry too.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.