Stats paint a bleak picture of Yukon tourism this year

The latest numbers are in and show few surprises — the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on tourism in Yukon.

No surprises in latest tourism visitation report for Yukon — 2020 has been brutal for local operators

International border crossings into Yukon between April and June were down 97 per cent compared to the same time last year. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The latest numbers are in and show few surprises — the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on tourism in Yukon.

"There's virtually no sector of tourism or segment of the tourism industry that hasn't been impacted by COVID," said Pierre Germain, director of tourism with the Yukon government. 

"It's decimated here in the territory, and is decimated across the country."

A report released by the territorial government this week looks at visitation numbers for the first half of 2020, including how many people arrived by air or crossed the border into Yukon and stayed at least one night in the territory.

The data show just how bad things have been for local businesses. Comparing the new second-quarter (April to June) figures to those from 2019:

  • air arrivals at the Whitehorse airport were down 96 per cent;
  • international border crossings were down 97 per cent;
  • international overnight visits were down 88 per cent and;
  • hotel occupancy was down 40 per cent.

Germain says Yukon's tourism industry was hit harder than those in many other jurisdictions because it relies so heavily on foreign visitors. He says only about 30 per cent of Yukon's tourists each year are Canadian, whereas in many other provinces about 60 to 80 percent of visitors are domestic tourists.

'It's decimated here in the territory, and is decimated across the country,' said Pierre Germain, Yukon's director of tourism. (CBC)

"As we look forward to living with COVID over the course of the next, you know, period of a year, there's going to be an increased emphasis on everybody targeting the domestic market," he said.

"The trick for us is going to be making sure that businesses are around in order to benefit from those travelers across the country when they're able to travel here."

Sticking it out

Felix Geithner, owner of an outfitting company called Arctic Range Adventures, is not sure he can stick it out, but says it's hard to predict right now.

"If you're asking me if we feel like we're going to survive this, I'm leaning right now towards the 'maybe not,'" Geithner said.  

"I don't believe tourism will come back to the same level as we know it or knew it maybe just a few months ago."

The arrivals area at Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport in December, 2019. The Yukon government says local outfitters were hit particularly hard during the COVID-19 pandemic because many of them rely heavily on foreign visitors. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Geithner's company takes clients on canoe and hiking trips in the summer, and dog sledding and ice fishing excursions in winter. Aurora Borealis viewing is also a big part of the business.

Geithner says it's not so simple to just shift the focus to attracting Canadian tourists, such as those from B.C. Right now, people from that province can come to Yukon without having to self-isolate upon arrival.

"Our programs, that are designed for international travelers and meet their expectations, just don't fit that well to guests that come from B.C. — because they have other means and interests of how to travel in the Yukon," he said. 

Torsten Eder, co-owner of Northern Tales Aurora Borealis, says September is normally his busiest month but this year is "pretty bleak." His revenues are down about 95 per cent this year, and his usual staff of 26 people has been reduced to six.

He says his company can weather the storm for this year at least, and he believes Yukon's tourism industry will bounce back — though it may look very different, with fewer businesses and less variety in tours and experiences offered.

September is typically a busy month for companies that sell aurora viewing tours — but not this year. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"I'm a positive person. I think there is a future for tourism. It's just, you know, this is throwing us back 10, 15 years, possibly 20 years," he said.

Eder is hopeful that there will soon be a further easing of travel restrictions. He believes it can be done carefully and safely. 

"None of us in the tourism industry is looking for irresponsible travel. We have all reduced our capacity. We all have COVID-safe operational plans," he said.

"To have a more qualified approach to countries that have low numbers and have the situation under control, travel should be allowed."

With files from Claudiane Samson and Elyn Jones