Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

DIFFICULT DECISIONS – Operators are trying to determine if it’s worth it for them to open this year, says Neil Hartling, chair of the Tourism Industry Association of Yukon.

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

CLIENTELE HAS EVAPORATED – Joel Hibbard, who owns Nahanni River Adventures and Canadian River Expeditions, is planning to cut his costs until 2021.

‘Operators feel like they’re sitting on death row’

During National Tourism Week, there is little to celebrate for the Yukon’s industry operators.

By Gabrielle Plonka on May 29, 2020

During National Tourism Week, there is little to celebrate for the Yukon’s industry operators.

“Most years, Tourism Week is a celebratory time when we talk about the value of tourism to the Yukon’s economy,” Neil Hartling, chair of the Tourism Industry Association of Yukon, told the Star Thursday.

National Tourism Week began last Sunday and will conclude this Sunday.

In previous years, Hartling would use Tourism Week to laud tourism as a driver of the territory’s GDP, bringing 500,000 visitors and $250 million to the economy every year.

This summer, COVID-19 and the Yukon border closures have halted travel and effectively cancelled the tourism season.

“I’ve described it as a wrecking ball crashing through a quarter-billion portion of the economy, and then I’ve also described it as a slow-motion train wreck,” Hartling said.

“Operators feel like they’re sitting on death row, waiting, potentially seeing the end coming up very quickly.”

As safety restrictions are incrementally relaxed by Dr. Brendan Hanley, the chief medical officer, nearly all businesses are permitted to open.

That doesn’t mean there will be clientele to serve, however, and the onus is on tourism operators to decide whether there will be enough business to warrant hiring staff and opening the doors.

“If they’re going to open, and there’s not going to be enough business for them … they would probably lose more money than they would make,” Hartling said.

“Operators now are trying to determine if it’s even worth it for them to open, because most of them run on very tight margins as it is.”

Many operators spend thousands of dollars on insurance, staff and vehicles, Hartling explained.

These fixed costs are currently covered by the Yukon government’s business relief program, a program that runs until July 23.

The relief program has already been extended once. Last week, Ranj Pillai, the minister of Economic Development, couldn’t say whether the program will be extended again, but added his department will continue to monitor the situation.

The uncertainty of that support is challenging for operators who are potentially facing 10 months without income – assuming the 2021 tourism season goes ahead.

Jesse Cooke, the owner of Husky Bus based in Dawson City, said his business will remain closed this summer.

“We’re in austerity mode at the moment,” Cooke said.

Husky Bus offers transportation and tour packages, with the majority of traffic coming from Holland America cruise passengers.

Holland America cancelled all Alaska cruises earlier this month.

Cooke didn’t hire any seasonal staff this year and laid off one of two year-round employees.

He pulled the insurance off most of his vehicles and applied for government assistance programming. Now, he is looking to sell some vehicles and divest the company’s assets.

“When we do start again in 2021, it’s not to say we’re starting from scratch … but we’ll be starting very small again,” Cooke said.

He and one full-time staffer will spend this summer working on itineraries for 2021. That won’t generate any revenue for Husky Bus, but will hopefully poise the company for a successful season next summer.

“I’m putting all my eggs in one basket right now that we will see a recovery in 2021, and if we don’t, I’m really going to wish I had dismantled the business right now, as we speak,” Cooke said.

“If we do make it to June of 2021, and there is no recovery or a slow or painful one, I surely won’t succeed, and many of us won’t. We can really only do this once; we’ve only got one crack at this.”

Part of the uncertainty comes from the fact that even if the pandemic subsides over the next year, that doesn’t mean people will be ready or willing to travel.

Hartling said a recent survey of Americans found most people will wait at least 60 days before making travel plans after being told they’re free to do so.

Hartling hopes Yukoners will take the opportunity this summer to take tours, go on adventures and support local operators.

“This is the best time ever for Yukoners to visit the highlights of the Yukon, and see the things the rest of the world realizes are world class and has on their bucket list,” Hartling said.

Joel Hibbard, who owns Nahanni River Adventures and Canadian River Expeditions, said he hopes to see some local traffic this summer.

One challenge, though, is a lot of tourism operators provide expertise that Yukoners already have, and the pool of potential clientele is small.

“There’s a hundred tourism operators in the Yukon vying for the attention of 37,000 Yukoners, so there’s a lot of sharks in the water right now,” Hibbard said.

He’s preparing to hunker down and cut costs until 2021. He has taken a job at the hospital and his sister, who co-owns the business, is also looking for other work.

“We’re carrying debt, and have fixed costs that aren’t going anywhere, and we need to make sure we can pay our bills,” Hibbard said.

He called the federal government loan for businesses “a drop in the bucket” for owners potentially facing two years without income.

“We started planning for worst-case scenario in March: the loss of two seasons.”

Part of the challenge to opening up is respecting the wishes of First Nations communities along tour routes, many of which are not willing to see visitors any time soon.

“We operate in an area in the Nahanni, which is one of the big national parks in the N.W.T., and one of the villages there, Nahanni Butte, lost a lot of elders from the Spanish flu,” Hibbard said.

“That’s something that exists in the oral record there and in a number of history books … and the thought that First Nations would see this as an existential threat, and something they would be very wary of, and really understand the seriousness of, was something that immediately came to mind.”

Hibbard says he hopes to weather the storm, but there is no certainty.

“We all fear death; it’s a possibility,” Hibbard said.

“It’s also something that we will do everything we can to keep from happening.”

There needs to be balance between government support and keeping the economy afloat over the next year, Hibbard said, because a sinking stock market will only plunge tourism deeper in the future.

“It is important that the people who are coming on these trips are confident in their own financial situations,” Hibbard said.

“Interest-free loans would be the biggest thing that would allow for businesses to continue to hold their responsibilities … I have no issue paying my debt, but I need time to deal with it.”

While the situation is challenging, Cooke said he’s optimistic that Husky Bus will survive.

“We have to try and stay motivated and stay positive,” Cooke said.

“It’s not a doomsday thing, it’s just the way it is.”

See COVID-19 response-related letters, commentaries in today’s expanded Opinion section.

Comments (9)

Up 20 Down 8

Wilf Carter's Sensible Twin on Jun 2, 2020 at 2:49 pm

YEESH - YOU'RE NOT ON "DEATH ROW" HARTLING !

Get a job driving a city bus or serving coffee at Timmy's.

Up 6 Down 20

Josey Wales on Jun 1, 2020 at 3:21 pm

wow Sheepchaser...if that is what you comprehend via my participation?
perhaps you hit your head on a few billys making your cognitive abilities read like you got a ride home in the short bus after school...got out a wee bit early?

Up 18 Down 3

hangman on Jun 1, 2020 at 1:49 pm

'Death row!' Maybe more like the princess that could feel a pea beneath fifteen
mattresses.

Up 16 Down 3

SheepChaser on Jun 1, 2020 at 12:37 pm

@Josey Wales

It's legit to question what children are being taught. Always. Nothing wrong with that.

They need to be taught something, right? Or do you just want them to learn what comes out of their screens? Someone is going to fill their brain. A lot of worse options than how to be comfortable and competent in the bush away from cell signal. Work a deal with NOLS Yukon, Tat Exp, etc. to develop an open-source five-day outdoor youth leadership approved curriculum. Or similar. There are ways to manage it beyond just: "So, this bad thing happened this one time, so we banned it. Forever. Cause, as we know, good people can't do something well if bad people have done it badly." Time outside helps clear exactly those kinds of... cobwebs.

But hey, you want them hanging around town all summer under rules more strict than any school has ever enforced outside of the no-peanut rule in an era when Joker is a role model. I like it! I'll start making popcorn.

Up 16 Down 3

Maybe, just maybe the wrong example? on May 31, 2020 at 5:02 pm

NOTHING wrong with producing and buying local, EVERYTHING wrong with using Germany in the 30s as a stellar example. May I suggest a history lesson?

Up 16 Down 13

Josey Wales on May 31, 2020 at 9:42 am

Dear Sheepchaser...you do realize that you just illustrated in your " dear government" plead, the (gasp) Boy Scouts?

I truly get your point, sorta agree even..."but"?
you also illustrated the role of (also gasp)...parents!
Those are decent qualities you illustrate for those whom "choose" that direction, I repeat my agreement to your participation, for any readers not able to comprehend that.

In my opinion, one of thee biggest issues up here?
Is that so so many think it is the governments role to raise and instill "government approved" diversity, inclusion, and equity into children not theirs?
Do I need to further my participation here and "illustrate" just how I can parallel other government approved programs in history here and abroad, that try to raise other peoples kids?

the state broadcaster has covered just one such attempt to absolute death, aware?
Or..."typically" kids who hunt, fish, trap...don't rob lil ol ladies (absolutely not my words)
is what we perhaps agree on, just not who teaches them?

Up 36 Down 5

SheepChaser on May 30, 2020 at 9:38 am

Dear government,

Please empower the Yukon's outdoor operators to develop free or subsidized youth bush craft and adventure education programming this summer in smaller groups than traditional summer camps can provide. Partner with FNs. Get a grant from the feds.

Skills for the kids, help them keep bush safe for life, improve baseline fitness and health to boost their immune systems, work off some of that angst lockdown energy.

Smaller groups of 6-8 would allow the operators to run a skeleton crew and stay within the ten person max. Keep their heads above water for a season and spread the love of nature, stewardship and 'leave no trace' to the next generation.

Confidence building, physical effort, knowledge earning... How good would that be for a time like this?

Up 31 Down 1

One One-Lesser-Voice on May 29, 2020 at 6:50 pm

Makes sense, scale back and keep as many people working as possible due to loyalties, being a good business person and building for the future then scale up when things pick up.

Up 58 Down 4

Matthew on May 29, 2020 at 5:33 pm

Yup... COVID has just started its effects... wait for another 6 months, you'll start seeing defaults on car loans, credit card bills, house mortgages, etc. Will banks kick them out and produce a whole new country worth of homeless people? Sadly we're only at the tip of the iceberg. The coming recession will be by far worse on record and you thought the 30s was bad... well everywhere except Germany, they grew economy by producing and buying only German goods.. Shame for Canada since they actually said they plan to INCREASE trade with China.. hmmm..

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