Joe Bailey lost over $225,000 worth of tour bookings once the novel coronavirus pandemic hit.
Bailey runs Indigenous-owned and operated North Star Adventures, a Yellowknife-based tour company that offers Aurora sighting, fishing, boating and hiking tours, among others.
As news began to spread about the virus in January, he took a proactive approach and started screening bookings from high-risk countries with reported cases before official lockdown measures were in place. About 60 per cent of Bailey’s clients are from abroad, he says.
“We were doing a lot of cancellations and a lot of refunds,” he told Global News.
“We have a small population in Northwest Territories, so to have one (COVID-19) case here is magnified more than in a place with a larger centre.”
By March 1, Bailey says he had limited bookings to only travellers from the U.S. and Canada, but by March 17, he had shut down tours completely and had to lay off his 15-person staff.
“It’s my business, so I’m the only one that’s here right now, just trying to keep it going, trying to keep the emails going, and trying to figure out what we’re going to do as recovery,” he said.
No more tourists
Canada closed its borders to non-essential travel in March, and it is unclear when they will be opened again. Many provinces have also shut down domestic non-essential travel to help curb the spread of COVID-19, as have the Northwest Territories.
Some 42 per cent of businesses in the accommodation and food sectors have reported revenue drops of more than 50 per cent, according to an April survey of 12,600 businesses.
At the end of 2018, one out of every 11 jobs in Canada was directly tied to travel, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, but in April the unemployment rate in the tourism sector skyrocketed to more than 28 per cent.
In P.E.I., the pandemic has “devastated” the tourism industry, said provincial tourism minister Matthew MacKay.
Tourism is one of the top three sectors on the island, and many people rely on the business visitors bring — especially in peak season. Tourism hit new traffic records in 2019, and the province estimates that approximately 1.6 million visitors generated roughly $505 million in revenue.
“We went from three months ago to preparing for another record-breaking year, coming out with a strong marketing campaign, to going through this COVID-19 pandemic,” MacKay said.
“Now we’re in survival mode to try and get through the summer and prepare for next year.”
The effects of the pandemic are being felt coast to coast.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, about $3 billion in spending in Alberta was generated by Banff each year. The total Alberta economic impact from tourism is about $9 billion annually.
Almost Banff’s entire economy is tourism-based — about half of the town’s visitors come from outside Canada — and only people who work in the national park can live in the four-square-kilometre town.
In the first couple of weeks of the pandemic and subsequent shutdown, as many as 6,000 people — in a town with a population of about 9,000 — were laid off. Early estimates had unemployment at 80 to 85 per cent, Jason Darrah, director of communications and marketing for the town, previously told Global News.
“The town of Banff has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Darrah said.
To help offset losses in tourism, the government recently announced it will spend $30 million to enable provinces and territories to promote holidays in their “own backyard.”
The aim is to provide a valuable lifeline to the struggling sector during its peak summer season, Ben Cowan-Dewar, chairman of Destination Canada, said in the statement.
In P.E.I., MacKay said the province is marketing “staycations” to residents and hopes fellow islanders can support homegrown businesses. Alberta is encouraging similar efforts, too.
“As well, we’re hoping in the future to be able to do an ‘Atlantic Canada bubble,’ possibly to bring in some business from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and possibly Newfoundland,” MacKay said.
In Yellowknife, Bailey hopes he can get this year’s Aurora season back, which starts in August, even if certain bans remain on overseas travel. But as far as the summer season is concerned, it’s gone.
“Even then, I think it will be mostly Canadian and American tourists,” he said of tours this year, which will incorporate COVID-19 prevention measures.
Government support has been helpful in keeping North Star Adventures afloat during this time, but Bailey wants to get back to business and be able to hire his employees. He’s using this quiet time to review his operations, go through tour packages and check in with other community members.
Bailey says he’s also been in contact with overseas travel companies, which will hopefully lead to business in the future.
“We’ve got contacted by many, many travel agents in the United States who usually do European vacation packages and they’re looking to Canada now and… to the Northwest Territories,” he said.
“So that’s that’s a positive byproduct of this pandemic: travel agents are looking more domestically.”
— With files from Reuters and Global News reporter Emily Mertz
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