Tourism soars in N.W.T, setting new record for visits and spending

Tourism spending in the Northwest Territories has reached record heights.

Aurora-viewing sector is driving much of the growth, contributing nearly $50 million to the economy

Pilots Monument in Yellowknife's Old Town is one of the big tourism draws in the city. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Tourism in the Northwest Territories has reached record heights.

The territorial government says visitor spending surpassed the $200 million mark for the first time, as 108,480 visitors travelled to the region between April 2016 and April 2017.

The $201.40 million spent is an increase of 21 per cent over 2015-16 ($167.1 million), while the number of visitors went up by 16 per cent from the previous year (93,910).

Aurora viewing is one of the drivers of the tourism spike in the Northwest Territories. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"They're fantastic numbers," said Anne Kokko, a spokeswoman for the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. "And we're thrilled to see growth across the different sectors."

The aurora-viewing sector is driving much of the growth, contributing nearly $50 million to the economy in the most recent tourism season. That's a 23 per cent increase over last season.

Outdoor adventure and leisure travel to the N.W.T has also increased, while business travel is seeing a small, but positive recovery, according to the government. 

Tourism Minister Wally Schumann is crediting the growth to the territorial government's five-year tourism strategy, which aims to increase the value of the industry to $207 million annually by 2021.

"Record-breaking tourism numbers show that the investments and initiatives set out in our Tourism 2020 strategy are working," he said in a news release.

"The department, local tourism operators, and our destination marketing organization NWT Tourism, are working together to build this sector — and with it, the strength and diversity of our regional economies."

Tourists pose for photos at an outcrop by Cameron Falls. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The quick growth in tourism does have its drawbacks, however. Yellowknife is so busy, there are times when no rooms are available for rent in the city.

This month alone, 9,000 tourists visited the city — mostly from China and Korea — leaving hotels and B&Bs full and forcing some tourists to set up tents.

"There's a couple of sides to it [the tourism growth], for sure," Kokko said. "There's certainly an opportunity for people to get into bed-and-breakfasts by getting a licence and getting involved in the accommodation industry."

Kokko said it will be interesting to see how the industry responds to the demand, saying she hopes hotel businesses take a deeper look at what the market potential is for them to build or expand.