The Current

Life almost back to normal in Yukon, but tourism sector needs the world to catch up

Low COVID-19 case numbers and a high vaccination rate are starting to make life feel normal again in Dawson City, Yukon. But for locals who work in the city's tourism industry, it's vital that the rest of the world can visit again soon.

Roughly 70 per cent of Yukon has received their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine

Lana Welchman recently attended a concert, featuring the band Jared Klok, in Dawson City, Yukon. (Annie Kierans/CBC)

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In Dawson City, Yukon, Lana Welchman recently enjoyed something most Canadians can only dream of right now: a live concert.

"It means a lot to me to be able to watch live music again. It's been a long, hard year," said Welchman, who spoke to The Current during a concert at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre. 

While some restrictions remain in place, the return of live music and some kind of normalcy has been allowed by low cases numbers and high vaccination rate in the city. For Welchman, who is a musician herself, it also means being able to perform in front of a crowd again.

"I'm getting ready to play a show next week, the first one since late 2019," said Welchman, who is also the director of the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture.

"Just being able to connect with people, connect with music again and be able to use our voices, that's such an important place to be right now — while being mindful that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic."

Viki Paulins is the manager of Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall in Dawson City. (Submitted by Viki Paulins)

Yukon has two active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, and roughly 70 per cent of the population has received their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. Forty-nine per cent of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated. 

Those figures are in contrast to the rest of Canada, where just over nine million first doses have been given, but only 2.22 per cent of the total population are fully vaccinated.

For businesses in Dawson City that rely on tourism from elsewhere, the rest of the world can't catch up fast enough.

Viki Paulins is manager of Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall, a gold rush-themed casino where staff wear period costumes and patrons are treated to stage shows every night.

Her venue was closed for months at the start of the pandemic last year, and only saw a fraction of their normal business during summer.

"We are lucky to have a great Yukon community who has still come up to support us throughout this time," she told Galloway.

"But we do normally have quite a few people travelling through tour groups or just independently in RVs.… Without that, we've noticed a huge decrease in revenue over the past year."

Diamond Tooth Gerties is a gold rush-themed casino, with live stage shows and staff wearing period costumes. (Annie Kierans/CBC)

'Can't get my feet underneath me'

Tourism in Yukon accounts for five per cent of the territory's GDP, the second-highest percentage in Canada. There are more than 400 businesses directly related to tourism and in 2019 the industry employed around 2,000 employees, according to the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon (TIAY).

"It represents just under half a billion dollars of revenue coming into the Yukon," Neil Hartling, chair of TIAY, told CBC News in January.

Business owner Brad Whitelaw said that a normal Dawson City summer is "full of bustle and liveliness" — all "go, go, go."

"The streets are full of people and that's outside people, outside money, and we really miss that," he said. 

Brad Whitelaw owns the Triple J Hotel, as well as a river tour business. He sold a third business during the pandemic. (Submitted by Brad Whitelaw)

Whitelaw owns the Triple J Hotel, as well as a paddlewheeler boat offering tours on the Yukon River. During the pandemic, he sold a third business, offering hunting and outdoor experiences.

"In 2019, I had 100 employees running these three companies and we did about four-and-a half million dollars in gross sales," he said.

"Last year, I did less than a million and employed maybe 40 people."

Whitelaw said that adjustment has been heartbreaking.

"During these times, it's kind of like a deer out in the middle of a frozen lake. I just can't get my feet underneath me or seem to reach out to shore yet."

Whitelaw offers tours along the Yukon River on the Klondike Spirit. (Submitted by Brad Whitelaw)

Territory pledges $15 million to recovery

In December, Yukon's government published a "relief and recovery plan" aimed at getting the territory's tourism sector back on its feet within three years. (Destination Canada, a Crown corporation, has predicted that it could take up to five years for the industry to rebound nationally).

The plan pledged more marketing to attract visitors, but also safety measures to minimize COVID-19 risks.

The plan came weeks after the territory's government pledged $15 million to the tourism industry over the next three years, with $5.6 million for relief and $450,000 for recovery will be distributed by April 2021. 

Paulins said keeping her doors open will depend on government assistance.

"We operated last year at a bit of a deficit. We are budgeting this year as well to end the year at a deficit," she said.

"How many years in a row can you run a deficit and still come out at the end?"

Given the uncertainty of the past year, she's hesitant to speculate about what lies ahead, but finds hope in the support of her staff and community.

"We're ready to ride this out the way it is right now, and if things change and we are able to open up a little more or facilitate some more people in our venue, we'd be very grateful," she said.

"For now, we're just very grateful for Yukoners to travel around [and] spend money internally, and see if we can get each other through."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Audio produced by Ben Jamieson, with additional files from Annie Kierans.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

This story is part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read and hear more of those stories here.

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