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All is not lost for Nunavut travel and tourism in 2020, but the Covid-19 toll will be substantial

Kevin Kelly was in Nunavut during the painful 2008-09 recession, but the immediate damage wrought by Covid-19 has been more disastrous for Nunavut’s travel and tourism industry, he says.

“If business travel starts picking up again, there’s an opportunity for the tourism industry to move forward.” says Kevin Kelly, CEO of Travel Nunavut.
photo courtesy of Kevin Kelly

“I’d definitely say that this is worse,” says Kelly, CEO of Travel Nunavut, a non-profit membership association consisting of 140 businesses.

Kristina Alariaq can attest to that. At Dorset Suites in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), there are three occupied rooms out of 39.

“Our hotel is basically empty of short-term guests… that doesn’t cover the bills,” says Alariaq, who has run Huit Huit Tours and has expanded tourism offerings with her husband Timmun since 1989. “All the tours are cancelled for the summer… I don’t know how long (the pandemic’s effects) will last.”

In Nunavut’s smaller communities, Kelly says Co-op hotels are “pretty much shutdown” due to a lack of business.

The hits started coming in March when Transport Canada put a stop to the summer cruise ship season in the Arctic for 2020.

Kelly and Alariaq agree that the remainder of 2020 could be partly salvaged when the threat of the pandemic has passed and government is able to scale up operations. Business travellers comprise a significant portion of airfare bookings, stays at hotels, meals at restaurants and purchases of local artwork.

“It all depends on what happens with the travel restrictions,” says Kelly. “Our hope is that government and people go back to work and some possibly some community travel happens… if business travel starts picking up again, there’s an opportunity for the tourism industry to move forward.”

Kelly says the amount of financial aid needed to assist Nunavut’s $300-million travel and tourism sector can’t yet be quantified due to the unknown factors lying ahead. However, a fraction of businesses in the territory have indicated that they are facing permanent closure, Kelly notes.

Alariaq says she looked at applying for the Government of Nunavut’s $5,000 support grant but it’s only available to businesses with income under $500,000. Federal aid in the form of wage subsidies also isn’t going to help because it’s geared towards workers in place before Covid-19 struck, not the hiring of seasonal staff.

One thing Nunavummiut can do to assist the industry, Kelly suggests, is to dine locally and travel within the territory once some semblance of normalcy returns.

“That’s how the industry is going to survive,” he says. “That’s how things are going to recover.”

The status of seasonal jobs at visitors centres across Nunavut remains up in the air as well. The Department of Economic Development and Transportation (ED&T) operates four of those facilities: in Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay.

“There is not much to share on the prospects for visitor centres opening this summer. It’s safe to say that we will be following the directions of the CPHO (chief public health officer) with respect to non-critical public facilities,” states Matt Bowler, director of policy and planning with with ED&T.