Covid-19 Impacting Far North Tourism

By Ian Stalker

Inuvik, Northwest Territories is located far from major population centres but that doesn’t mean the people involved in its tourism trade have been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been wreaking havoc on the entire travel industry.

The remote community of Inuvik, with a population of 3,300, is located 200km above the Arctic Circle at the end of the Dempster Highway on the East Channel of the Mackenzie Delta and about 100km from the Arctic Ocean.

The close-knit community is home to Inuit-owned Tundra North Tours, which for some 15 years has been offering nearly year-round tours, showcasing Indigenous culture and the natural side of the region, surrounding a destination on the mighty Mackenzie River.

Company programs include inviting people to stay in an “Igloo Village” Tundra North builds outside town during winter, enabling people to experience the iconic Arctic dwelling.

Tundra North’s Kylik Taylor makes it abundantly clear that being far away from geographic COVID-19 epicentres doesn’t mean the virus hasn’t had a dramatic negative effect on his company’s business, including the federal government’s restrictions on foreigners entering Canada. Tundra North has just seen group cancellations from such countries as China, Finland and Israel.

“It’s brutal,” Taylor says. “It’s all dried up. We’ve lost a large amount of business in a short time. I don’t honestly see us recovering from this in quite a while.”

Travel companies often operate on slim profits, notes Taylor, who adds that off-the-beaten-path firms are particularly vulnerable when times are tough for the tourism industry.

It’s not yet known how northern firms will qualify for federal assistance with firms in dire straits in these tough times.

On the face of it, Tundra North certainly deserves to attract clients to the Mackenzie Delta region, with Taylor noting it provides “once-a-lifetime opportunities to experience the North and experience it through our eyes. When you come up here you can experience a lot of things you can’t experience in other places.”

The Indigenous influence is very visible in Inuvik and nearby communities, as is Mother Nature in a sparsely populated part of the world.

In previous years Tundra North has participated in major tourism shows, including Rendezvous Canada, a showcase for Canadian tourism. However, this year’s event in Quebec City, scheduled from May 5 to May 8, had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

Taylor says Tundra North, which has two full-time and two part-time employees, has been through tough times before with the financial crisis of 2008 having been damaging, but he believes “this is probably 100 times worse.”

Tundra North can’t rely on bookings from within the Northwest Territories, which has a smallish population and residents that are generally already familiar with what it offers. Trying to market to fellow northerners would be akin to “selling fish to Indigenous people who already know how to fish,” Taylor says.

The company has a summertime office in Inuvik and staff work from home in winter, when there’s no walk-in business.
Taylor says these are gloomy times for small businesses within and outside travel.

“A lot of them won’t be around next year,” he predicts. “My heart goes out to all the small businesses.”