'They won't be able to survive': N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce says tourism threatened by border restrictions

Players in the tourism sector say there’s a risk the entire industry could collapse if border restrictions stay up through 2021. 

Travel restrictions will likely stay in place during the 2021 tourism season, Dr. Kandola says

Empty seats at the Yellowknife airport. A report from the government of the Northwest Territories shows a 53 per cent reduction in the number of passengers coming through the airport in March 2020 compared to March 2019. (Jay Legere/ CBC)

The N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce says there's a risk the entire tourism industry could collapse if border restrictions stay up through 2021. 

Renée Comeau, executive director of the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce, told CBC the territory risks losing most, if not all, of its tourism industry if it cannot find a way to let more travellers in. 

"From what our membership has told us, they won't be able to survive," she said. "If you don't have customers coming in, you can't sustain a business." 

The comments come as Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, told MLAs last week that travel restrictions will likely have to stay in place through the summer tourism season. 

Restrictions could stay up until Canada reaches herd immunity 

The territory has received enough doses of the Moderna vaccine to immunize 75 per cent of the eligible population by March, Dr. Kandola said. That's the benchmark for herd immunity.

That's not the case in the rest of Canada, where she predicts it will take the rest of the year to reach the same level of immunization. 

"The struggle is that the rest of Canada won't be at [75 per cent], so we will still have to keep the travel restrictions," Kandola said at the time. 

Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer of the N.W.T., said travel restrictions into the N.W.T. will likely stay in place until the rest of Canada reaches herd immunity. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Dr. Kandola hasn't made a formal decision yet on whether to keep the border restrictions up. 

She is waiting on research that will clarify whether or not people vaccinated against COVID-19 can still transmit the virus to those who are not. That research, she continued, could have an impact on how freely people are able to move to and from the territory. 

Since March, the territory maintains a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period and limits all non-essential travel to the N.W.T. 

Tourism considered 'vital' for economy 

Comeau said tourism is "vital" to the N.W.T. economy, because it sustains other businesses in the hospitality, arts and retail sectors. 

"We haven't seen anything like this, where we have ... no tourists coming in whatsoever," Comeau said. "Tourism operators are 100 per cent relying on residents of the N.W.T. to be their customers — and that's a first." 

In the 2019-2020 season, tourists spent more than $204 million in the N.W.T., according to a report from the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. 

We haven't seen anything like this, where we have ... no tourists coming in whatsoever.- Renée Comeau, executive director of the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce

That same report, measuring the performance of the tourism sector's performance from August 2019 to March 2020, gives a glimpse of how the early days of the pandemic impacted the industry. 

The Yellowknife airport saw 14,174 passengers in March, a 53 per cent drop from 2019, the report notes. The decline was even sharper in local airports, reaching a high of 99.5 per cent reduction in passengers through Fort Simpson. 

There is no more recent data exploring the pandemic's impact on the tourism sector. 

The N.W.T. continues to promote regional "stay-cation" campaigns to bring in-territory business to operators in different parts of the territory. 

While that's been successful, Comeau said it won't sustain the sector during a second summer of travel restrictions. 

'We're just trying to keep up'

In 2019, up to 50 travellers a day would flock to the B.Dene Adventures cabin, outside of Dettah, to watch the Aurora dance over Akaitcho Bay. 

The business, run by Bobby Drygeese and his family, offers cultural tours to teach travellers about the culture and lifestyle of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. 

Now, Drygeese told CBC, they see one group from Yellowknife every week, who books the cabin for small in-person meetings, and the occasional day-tripper — a far cry from those pre-pandemic days. 

Bobby Drygeese, owner of B.Dene Adventures, says 2020's been a stressful year for his family and his business. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

"[It's been] a lot of stress," Drygeese said, reflecting on the last year for his business. 

"People are asking for jobs, and we've got to pay the bills for our house too. So we're just trying to keep up." 

The tourism slowdown means having to scale back the family-run business, Drygeese said. 

Normally, B.Dene Adventures has 25 on-call employees to help run the cultural tours, or to take care of guests at their on-the-land camps. 

It's down to just Drygeese and his wife, who runs the financial side of the operation. 

This slow business pace, Drygeese said, is sustainable for a few more months. The family's not sure what it will do after that. 

As much as Drygeese said he wants tourists to come back, he also wants to make sure the territory is able to keep COVID-19 at bay. 

Airline loses 90 per cent of customers during pandemic 

It's the same situation for Ted Grant, the owner and chief pilot at Simpson Air. 

The company's been taking travellers into the Nahanni National Park Reserve outside Fort Simpson, N.W.T., for the last 57 years.

Simpson Air in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., has been flying people in and out of Nahanni National Park Reserve for 57 years. During the pandemic, the company's lost 90 per cent of their clients. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Simpson Air has a handful of regular clients from Alberta and the N.W.T., but Grant said the vast majority come from elsewhere in Canada, and countries like China, South Korea and Japan. 

He estimates he's lost 90 per cent of his regular clients because of the pandemic, adding to at least $300,000 in lost profit.

The biggest loss, he continued, is not being able to strengthen relationships with travel agencies around the world, who send him guests every year.

"We've got to get the marketing out again," Grant said. "This has been a steady influx of tourists that we deal with, and now those numbers have dried up, so those have to start again." 

Grant said it'll take him at least three years to re-build those relationships to pre-pandemic levels — but by then, he's hoping to sell Simpson Air and retire. 

In the immediate future, Grant and Drygeese are optimistic that the availability of the vaccine will change the course of their businesses.