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Tour Territory: Complaints about illegal tour operators, rule breaking rampant in N.W.T.

Licensed tour operators are crying foul over increasing illegal activities in the N.W.T.'s tour industry. Meanwhile, the territorial government says it has fined one operator since 2013 and that it's not an issue.

Phone 'ringing off the hook’ at government tourism office with complaints about suspicious tourism activity

Licensed operator David Stephens of Borealis Bike Tours Unlimited says one operator stole his photos and content off his website, and advertised fat bike tours. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Tour Territory is an ongoing series looking at tourism in the Northwest Territories. This story is part one of two stories on unlicensed operators.

The Northwest Territories is seeing its biggest boom in tourism — but it's not without its vices.

Multiple interviews, documents and emails obtained by CBC News show there's a growing concern over unlicensed tour operators and other violations of tourism regulations in the N.W.T. — and the documents portray the territorial government as struggling to keep up.

Records are being broken for tourism in the territory — for the first time ever, more than 100,000 visitors travelled to the N.W.T. and spending also reached an all-time high at $200 million in 2016-17, according to the latest government tourism statistics. That number is expected to be higher for 2018, a government spokesperson said.

This January, CBC News asked the territory's Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment — the regulating body for tour operators — for all documents relating to complaints received about unlicensed tour operators in the N.W.T., for the past six years, under the Access to Information and Privacy Act.

It's a big can of worm[s].- Tourism officer in email in October 2017

CBC received about 150 pages in internal government emails and other documents on the topic.

Under the law, an operator must have a licence issued by the territorial government to make money off tour services. Unlicensed operators are not obliged to follow safety rules nor have proper insurance for their activities, putting tourists at risk.

"It's a big can of worm[s]," a tourism development officer writes in an email in October 2017, talking about all the tour operator licence-related complaints the department received.

"We have a licensing issue here that is making the industry really vocal. [An officer's] phone is ringing off the hook."

The tourism officer writes that licensing issues are an ongoing problem.

"There's so many new operators lately, [it's] hard to keep track of them," the officer also writes in a 2016 email.

Upon arrival, a tourist takes a photo of the polar bear at Yellowknife airport on Oct. 19, 2018. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Suspicious fishing groups to illegal boat tours

There are several alleged illegal activities in the internal emails reviewed by CBC.

In one instance in 2015, a tourism officer discovers an unlicensed operator giving boat tours at the annual Old Town Ramble and Ride festival; the operator, who was known to the department for starting the paperwork for a licence but not following through, is later charged and fined. 

Brazen little criminals like [redacted name] shouldn't be allowed to get away with things like this.- Tour operator writes to N.W.T. tourism department

In 2014, an unlicensed operator from Europe, who failed to renew his tourism licence, was warned by tourism staff after he flew in clients to ski on Banks Island near Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., and made them sleep at the local airport.

In March 2017, one disgruntled licensed operator that works in the territory's barrenlands on the Thelon River writes to the department about an unlicensed operator from Ontario doing illegal commercial canoe trips there, charging about $7,000 per person. The unlicensed operator tried to skirt around the rules by advertising his trip as "semi-private."

"Brazen little criminals like [redacted name] shouldn't be allowed to get away with things like this. It's time to teach him a lesson," writes the complainant.

This photo is a part of the tourism department's inspection report included in an internal email chain obtained by CBC. The department investigated after finding this area along Highway 3 cleared of trees and bushes, and found four 'potentially unauthorized' structures, like these two teepees. (Internal emails/Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment)

In January of last year, an officer talks about "suspicious groups fishing on the [Great Slave Lake's] East Arm" — mainly people from the South bringing tourists up with them.

Last year, the department investigated after discovering trees and bushes cleared in an area along Highway 3 near Yellowknife. They found two "potentially unauthorized" buildings and two teepees — and said it appeared to be used as an aurora viewing facility.

'We're very frustrated': local operator

These examples are only a few of the alleged illegal activities happening — and the frequency is increasing, according to observations from several local tour operators CBC spoke with. Many operators, including those interviewed for this story, were reluctant to speak publicly for fear of losing potential funding from the government.

"We're very frustrated with what's happening," says Joe Bailey, who has run North Star Adventures since 2010.

Bailey, who mainly does "aurora hunting" tours in the Yellowknife area, says in the past few years he's seen what seems to be an increase of unlicensed activities and has been reporting them to the tourism department. 

Bailey, owner of licensed operation North Star Adventures in Yellowknife, says he's frustrated with questionable tourism operations in the territory cutting corners and putting tourists at risk. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

In one instance, Bailey says a man from Toronto took his tours, befriended him, and asked lots of questions; Bailey later found that the man was operating aurora tours without a licence and reported him to the government.

"They're taking business away from the licensed operators," said Bailey.

Really, if it's not gonna be enforced and policed, what's the point of having a tour operator's licence?- David Stephens, Borealis Bike Tours Unlimited

"These guys are coming in and doing what they want," he said. "[They're] cutting corners."

Bailey said licensed operators pay more for proper insurance and renewing their licence every year; it costs $565 for a licence, $340 to make changes to it, and $170 per year to renew it. It costs hundreds or thousands of dollars more for proper commercial vehicle insurance.

He's also concerned about the safety of tourists who are on illegal tours. If something goes wrong during one, the industry will take the hit, he said.

"It's gonna give [us] a bad name, it's gonna look bad on all of us."

People advertising tours they're not licensed for

Both licensed and unlicensed tour operators are also advertising tours that they're not licensed for — a "widespread" issue and a big headache for the government, documents reveal.

Under the Tourism Act, an operator can't advertise a service that's not noted on their tourism licence.

Last September, a licensed operator for all-terrain vehicle tours in Yellowknife complained about an unlicensed operator giving ATV tours, and advertising them online and on popular Chinese social media app WeChat. In the email, the complainant asks why nothing has changed after two weeks of bringing the issue up to the government.

There should be serious consequences.- David Stephens, Borealis Bike Tours Unlimited

"Our ATV each cost us over $2,000 [in] insurance to operate," writes the operator. "I do not think it is fair for them to operate with no licence at all."

David Stephens, owner and operator of Borealis Bike Tours Unlimited in Yellowknife, complained this January about another licensed operator who allegedly stole his photos and website content almost word for word, and advertised fat bike tours. That company was not licensed for bike tours.

"After all the hard work that I've done, it's pretty frustrating to see somebody trying to pretend they are doing what you're doing," Stephens told CBC.

One of the photos on Stephens's tour website. Here, Stephens is guiding a fat bike tour in the winter. (David Stephens/Borealis Bike Tours Unlimited)

Stephens said he checked in with the government a few times since, but was told the staff wasn't able to "catch the company in the act." Stephens said he noticed the company took down the advertisements about eight months later, but wasn't sure if there were any consequences for violating the rules.

"When people are trying to take shortcuts, save money, do things under the table, or do things that are really crooked and illegal, there should be serious consequences," said Stephens.

Some of his suggestions for the government include taking away licences or not allowing an unlicensed operator who broke the rules to apply for a licence for a year.

Stephens, seen here guiding a group of tourists on fat bikes, suggests the government should look at larger fines and harsher penalties for breaking tourism rules. (David Stephens/Borealis Bike Tours Unlimited)

Stephens also suggested larger fines to deter illegal activities, and more tourism officers to do periodic checks on and off tour sites, and even go undercover.

Tourism licences should be plainly visible to tourists on vehicles or on websites, he added.

"And really, if it's not gonna be enforced and policed, what's the point of having a tour operator's licence?"

Issues not systemic, says gov't

In the past five years, one individual got penalized for not following the territory's tourism rules — the illegal Ramble and Ride boat operator paid a $2,420 fine.

Since 2013, the department said it has launched nine investigations, issued six compliance orders, laid two charges, and fined one person.

Fines can range from up to $10,000 (for the first offence) to $25,000, and offenders may also serve jail time of up to one year, according to the government. Nobody has been jailed to date.

Kris Johnson, the tourism department's superintendent for the North Slave region, says she's not sure how many illegal operations there are.

"I know that it happens, and we address it as we find out about it, and we're doing the best with the resources that we have," she said.

But Johnson added she doesn't think there are a lot of unlicensed operations going on, even though complaints are abundant in her office. 

"I wouldn't say that it's a systemic problem in our industry," said Johnson, adding that most of the complaints, when looked into, turn out to be unsubstantiated or there's not enough evidence to pursue it.

Superintendent for tourism's North Slave region, Kris Johnson, says she doesn't think there are a lot of illegal operations in the territory. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

There is currently one manager and two full-time tourism staff working on enforcement and licensing for the North Slave region, which includes Yellowknife, according to the department. 

A senior parks officer also juggles his parks duties and helps with tourism enforcement out in the field.

The South Slave has two tourism enforcement and licensing staff; the Dehcho region has three; Beaufort Delta has two; and the Sahtu has two, according to numbers the government provided.

Johnson says patrols have increased over the years, and now happen at least once a week — day and night, and at key tourism spots.

Some licensed operators, who are out doing tours almost every day during peak seasons, told CBC they encounter anywhere from zero to two government patrols throughout the year.

"Maybe they're just not there at the same time," said Johnson.

And while several tour operators tell CBC they feel like the department is understaffed in proportion to the number of operators, Johnson says it's not. 

And yet, she said the department is working on having four more seaso​nal parks officers who will also do patrols for tourism, starting next year from April to September. She says there will also be two part-time weekend officers.

The department will make a full list of licensed operators available online for tourists and operators to check in the future, she added.

"Things have definitely grown very fast over the past few years and so we've put more staff in place to address that and we made some changes," said Johnson. 

"I think people will see an improvement."


Tomorrow, Tour Territory examines one particular case of an unlicensed operation in the N.W.T., and how the government handled it.

Have you seen unlicensed tour operations in your community? Do you have a story or a news tip about tourism in the N.W.T.? Contact priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca

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About the Author

Priscilla Hwang

Reporter/Editor

Priscilla Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Yellowknife. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, Ottawa, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Before joining the CBC in 2016, she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa to share people's stories. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University and speaks Korean, Tunisian Arabic, and dabbles at classical Arabic and French. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca or @prisksh on Twitter.

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