This is the first installment in a multi-part series on the tourism sector in Nunavut post-pandemic.
The worst of the pandemic may be over, but tourism businesses in Nunavut are still feeling the effects of the crisis.
Some have even quietly closed their doors for good, such as Bathurst Inlet Lodge, which had been offering ecotourism experiences in the territory’s Kitikmeot region since 1969.
“The lodge shut down due to Covid and it has not been able to reopen,” said co-owner Boyd Warner, who still operates a smaller-scale hunting operation that has “rebounded 100 per cent.”
The decision to close Bathurst Inlet Lodge came down to costs – not just the costs of surviving the pandemic, but recovering from a couple of years of lost business.
“Once we lost two years of marketing, two years of wear and tear on the building, it was just undoable for us,” Warner said. “In order to reopen it, it would require a substantial investment of money.
“We just don’t have the resources to put back into it. There is no plans to reopen for ecotourism.”
To shut its doors was a tough blow.
“It’s very sad to see that legacy pass,” Warner said.
In Gjoa Haven, CAP Enterprises, which formerly offered adventure tours and support for film crews, also had to shut down that part of its operations.
Co-founder Charlie Cahill estimates the company’s tourism business brought in $15,000 to $50,000 annually prior to Covid-19, depending on the year. Once the pandemic took hold, that number plummeted to zero.
“When Covid came, everything dropped right off,” he said. “For a couple years, we had no bookings at all. It was just money going out.”
According to Cahill, tourism in Gjoa Haven was already dwindling before the pandemic due to the “prohibitive” costs of flying there. And in the aftermath of the crisis, he believes many people “wanted to go to Mexico or somewhere hot, not the Arctic.”
He has received a few inquiries from potential customers in the last year, but didn’t accept them due to the costs of ramping back up.
CAP Enterprises was the only established company of its kind in Gjoa Haven, as “there wasn’t enough work for two companies,” according to Cahill. He believes Covid was “the death knell of tourism in the area.”
Both Warner and Cahill said they relied on various kinds of government support in hopes of keeping their businesses afloat through the pandemic. However, the support only went so far.
“It was more just a Band-Aid for the short term,” said Cahill.
Many of the tourism businesses that survived the pandemic are still recovering, including Arctic Kingdom, which operates in 11 communities and is one of the biggest such companies in the territory.
During the pandemic, Arctic Kingdom relied on a “quilt-work” of federal and territorial government programs that made “a big difference,” according to founder and owner Graham Dickson.
However, Dickson acknowledged those programs may not have been as useful to smaller companies due to rigorous “thresholds” on the kinds of businesses that were eligible, as well as complicated application processes.
“We have a full-time accountant who dedicated a lot of time to monthly applications and paperwork,” he said. “The filing requirements to qualify for everything were fairly sophisticated, which would be beyond many smaller companies.”
Even with government support, Arctic Kingdom struggled through the pandemic.
“In the moment, you were never sure when the Covid curtain was going to lift,” said Dickson. “It was a fairly constant planning and re-planning of whatever was coming up, basically quarter by quarter. That took a lot of resources.”
While Arctic Kingdom is gradually bouncing back, Dickson believes there are new issues deterring people from travelling, ranging from environmental concerns to inflation.
“It’s somewhat of a different world,” he said. “The sensitivity and desire to travel has changed to some degree.
“There’s no question that we’re not operating on the same models and same ratios that were there prior to Covid. There just seems to be new challenges ahead.”
It’s not all bad news for Nunavut’s tourism industry.
Black Feather, a large adventure tourism company that operates in five Nunavut communities, is currently doing good business. While co-owner Ken MacDiarmid was not ready to say the company has completely bounced back from the pandemic, he was busy enough that he did not have time to be interviewed on the phone.
“I can report that our recovery is under way,” he wrote in an email. “We are running many trips this spring and summer in Nunavut and it has been really nice to be back in the communities and out on the land. We are very grateful to all of our partners for keeping their businesses open and welcoming us back.”
However, even he acknowledged the ongoing obstacles of running a tourism business in Nunavut, pointing to “aviation challenges, particularly the reduction in Canadian North scheduled services.”