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Tour Territory: Inside the N.W.T.'s 'Wild West' aurora industry

A tourist was struck by a new operator’s tour vehicle during peak aurora season this fall. According to local operators, this accident portrays one of many concerns in the N.W.T.’s aurora industry that’s going through ‘growing pains.’

Industry concerned about tourist safety, overcrowded sites, and unprofessional aurora operators

The N.W.T.'s aurora industry is booming, but because of safety concerns and unprofessional operations, some in the industry describe the environment as 'a mess,' 'a war,' and 'the Wild West.' (Kristian Binder)

Tour Territory is an ongoing series looking at tourism in the Northwest Territories. This is part three.

Just after midnight on Sept. 29, a tourist was struck by a tour vehicle at the Giant Mine dock — one of many popular aurora viewing sites near Yellowknife.

This accident that injured the visitor and slipped by most media outlets demonstrates just one of several concerns in N.W.T.'s booming aurora industry that several operators described to CBC as "a mess," "a war," "the Wild West," and as going through "growing pains." 

It was a "minor collision," police confirmed to CBC. The tour car, belonging to newly licensed operator Aurora Story, was moving at a slow speed when it hit another company's tourist. No criminal charges were laid.

It doesn't surprise me there was an incident like this.- Sean Norman, aurora operator

But the Yellowknife fire department and RCMP were called to the site. The tourist was later
treated at the hospital for minor injuries and eventually flew back to Asia, the company the
visitor was on tour with, Morning Star Travel, confirmed to CBC.

A photo posted on popular Chinese website VanPeople shows Yellowknife fire department crews and police. The photo is said to have been taken at the Giant Mine dock on Sept. 29, after a tourist was struck by Aurora Story's tour vehicle. (电竞死歌/VanPeople)

This incident was posted to a popular Chinese website, VanPeople, based in B.C.

The author of the post used flagrant adjectives to warn future Chinese tourists about Aurora Story — a new company with "multiple issues," according to internal Department of Tourism emails obtained by CBC.

"Expose an illegal company in Yellowknife! The driver nearly killed the tourist!" is the title of the post, written in Chinese. The author posted alleged photos of the incident that show Yellowknife first responders in the background.

The author then alleges Aurora Story's driver didn't have a proper driver's licence, and that the company's car used to transport tourists didn't have a commercial licence plate or insurance. It is unclear whether the author of the post was present at the scene, and CBC's efforts to contact him were unsuccessful.

Aurora Story became licensed in late June and has multiple Jeeps and other vehicles in its fleet.

On the left, the author of a post on VanPeople posts a photo of what they say is a Jeep owned by Aurora Story that hit a tourist on Sept. 29, 2018. The tourism department told CBC the company was referred to the Department of Transportation to comply with licensing rules. On the right, one of Aurora Story's Jeeps on Nov. 2 has a 'C' on the licence plate, which means the vehicle was registered as commercial. (电竞死歌/VanPeople and Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

This isn't the only time a complaint was made about the new company.

This is insanity. And about the furthest thing from safe.- Complainant, internal email to N.W.T. tourism department

In an email sent on Oct. 3 to a manager at the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment — N.W.T.'s regulatory body for tour operators — a local operator says they saw companies the night before, including Aurora Story, driving on the Ingraham Trail without their head lights on. They also mention how Aurora Story didn't have commercial licence plates.

"My guests saw this too, and actually commented on it," writes the operator.

A complainant writes that a tour bus dangerously drove down the centre line of Haener Drive, photographed here, in Yellowknife. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

The complainant also writes that within the same hour, they saw another company driving "exactly down the centre line of Haener Drive," a suburban street in the city. The operator writes that they had to pull over to avoid the tour bus.

"This is insanity," writes the operator. "And about the furthest thing from safe."

The tourism manager writes back: "We are dealing on multiple issues with [Aurora Story] … We appreciate your info."

On Nov. 2, CBC visited Aurora Story's listed business address — a home in Yellowknife — to ask about the accident involving the tourist and other allegations. Employees at the home told CBC they couldn't understand English, and that the owner wasn't available. When CBC got a hold of a supervisor by phone, she refused to answer any questions, saying she was busy.

A Jeep parked outside of the home, branded with Aurora Story's logo, had a commercial licence plate at this time.

A supervisor with Aurora Story declined to answer any questions about the incident on Sept. 29, and other allegations in emails. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

'No one wants to tell the truth,' writes operator

Almost half of all licensed tour operators in the territory offer aurora tours, mostly in the Yellowknife area. According to the latest government numbers, aurora viewing made up about a quarter of the $203 million tourism dollars spent in the territory in the 2017-18 fiscal year. The number of tourists coming for aurora viewing went up 17 per cent from the year prior.

I implore [the tourism department] to make some rules.- Complainant, internal email to N.W.T. tourism department

But in internal documents obtained by CBC, established operators expressed concerns about the increasing number of new aurora tour operators and their professionalism.

A frustrated operator sent an email to tourism officials and a group of local aurora operators last September.

"Now that no one wants to tell the truth, let me be the speaker," writes the operator, whose name was redacted.

In the two-page email, the operator suggests that the tourism department gives licences to new applicants too easily.

The operator says unprofessional aurora tour companies are harming the industry's image.

"More professional tour operators are welcomed, but not any person or company," they write, giving the example of one unnamed company.

"Its price is extremely low but the quality is extremely poor," they say. "The customers were more disappointed [in] Yellowknife."

Tourists with Sean Norman's aurora tour take photos of the northern lights in December 2017. Norman says he's seen some dangerous situations on the Ingraham Trail. (Submitted by Sean Norman)

"There should be a much tighter regulation," they write. "I implore [the tourism department] to make some rules."

Expand aurora viewing sites instead, says operator

CBC spoke to several aurora tour operators and asked what they thought of this email. The vast majority of them said the contents expressed their common frustration — that there are suddenly too many new aurora tour operators who may not be operating soundly, tarnishing the industry's image.

It still feels a little bit like the Wild West in some ways.- Kyle Thomas, Yellowknife Online

But one operator, Kyle Thomas, said he doesn't think the market should be heavily regulated by the government, and that these frustrations are a part of the industry's "growing pains."

Thomas, whose father was also a tour operator, characterized the industry's growth as "the gold rush of 1930s in Yellowknife."

Thomas says there are a limited number of public aurora viewing sites along the Ingraham Trail. 'Can this sustain us? Is this going to last?' he asks. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

"It still feels a little bit like the Wild West in some ways," said Thomas, who became licensed three years ago for Yellowknife Online, and occasionally runs aurora and city tours for small groups.

Instead, Thomas said the government should look at expanding aurora viewing infrastructure, as the industry is "just exploding."

The Ingraham Trail (or Highway 4), which is home to several popular aurora viewing sites by lakes — like Prosperous, Prelude and Madeline — can only hold so many vehicles and tourists, especially in the fall, he said. The tourism department said the region has about 12 different public aurora viewing sites.

"Sometimes it can be chaos, sometimes it just flows nicely."

A tourist with Yellowknife Online takes a photo of the aurora by a lake off the Ingraham Trail. Almost half of all 148 licensed tour operators in the N.W.T. offer aurora tours. (Kyle Thomas/Yellowknife Online)

"It's just packed on some very popular nights, and you're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, can this sustain us? Is this going to last?'" said Thomas.

"What should we be doing to help make sure that we're not gonna all of a sudden hit a plateau and it just crumbles?"

'Dangerous' situations on the Ingraham Trail

Operator Sean Norman agrees.

"It doesn't surprise me there was an incident like this," he said, about the September accident that injured a tourist.

He explained how challenging it is to manoeuvre around tight spaces full of rental cars, tour buses and sometimes hundreds of tourists.

Sean Norman, a full-time aurora operator in Yellowknife, says he's seen several safety hazards while out on the Ingraham Trail at night. For instance, tour vans and rental cars not driving with head lights on. (Submitted by Sean Norman)

"It's feeling more and more overcrowded — more than it has ever been since I've been here," said Norman, a full-time aurora operator going on his fourth year of operation.

Other operators, who didn't want to speak publicly for fear of hurting their relationship with the government, said they see occasional yelling matches between operators, and noted that etiquette among operators has deteriorated.

Norman has other safety concerns.

On several occasions, he's seen tourists pulled over on the side of the Ingraham Trail, taking photos of the aurora in the dark. Norman noted the shoulder is just a metre off the road, and said curves along the trail can blind oncoming traffic.

"That's increasingly a high risk problem," Thomas agreed.

The Ingraham Trail near Prosperous Lake in August 2016. Norman says he often sees tourists pulled over to the side of the road, taking photos or looking at the aurora in the dark. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

And Norman noted that as the Ingraham Trail's capacity maxes out, operators and self-guided tourists are turning to other more remote locations or Highway 3 — which largely doesn't have cellular service.

He added that on many occasions, he's driven behind rental cars and sometimes tour vans without head lights on in the dark.

"It's dangerous."

On top of more safety signage and education in languages like Chinese and Korean, operators are calling for the tourism department to expand aurora viewing sites.

"We don't have to have anything fancy," Norman said, suggesting more gravel be dumped in certain areas along the Ingraham Trail where people can safely pull over to view the aurora.

Thomas suggested that the tourism department partners with the Department of Lands to make it easier for operators to get commercial land leases to build aurora viewing camps.

"[That] can alleviate some of the stress on the industry … and up [the quality] too."

New signage, sites if budget allows: government

Kris Johnson, the tourism department's superintendent of the North Slave region, said she's aware of all of the operators' safety concerns, and that safety is the most important for her.

Last year, the department made it mandatory for all operators to have a safety plan included in their licence renewal.

The market's going to take care of the bad businesses.- Kris Johnson, North Slave superintendent for Department of Tourism

Johnson said as soon as the department found out about Aurora Story's unsafe practices, like driving without head lights on, it contacted the company and made sure they understood the rules. 

Johnson said the operator said driving with head lights off was a common practice in their country, but complied.

Reporter Priscilla Hwang reviews Aurora Story's licence application with Kris Johnson, North Slave region's superintendent for Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. The department said it contacted the company about its 'multiple issues.' (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

As for the accident involving a tourist, Johnson said "it's an example of where things can go really wrong."

Following the incident, Aurora Story was directed to the Department of Transportation to get proper commercial licensing and insurance, Johnson said.

When asked why the tourism department doesn't check if tour operators have proper commercial vehicle licenses and insurance for their tour vehicles, Johnson said that's the Department of Transportation's job.

Johnson also said it isn't her department's job to regulate the market, and that there's good and bad businesses everywhere.

"The market's going to take care of the bad businesses," she said.

She said the department will continue to partner with the Department of Infrastructure to address safety concerns along the Ingraham Trail, and if budgets allow, will look at possible signage in different languages along the trail.

Meanwhile, the department provides safe aurora viewing maps to hotels, rental car companies and the visitor's centre.

Johnson agreed that there's limited space for aurora viewing, especially in the fall season that's recently booming.

She said as budgets allow, the department will look at building an aurora viewing platform on Cameron Falls, and possibly open up some sites at campgrounds longer into the fall season. 

She said she will look into operators' suggestions.


Translation by Daisy Xiong

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.