After two long years of restricted travel in the N.W.T., airlines and the tourism industry are preparing to welcome more visitors to the territory this summer.

Beginning on June 1, Air Canada will restore its daily service between Yellowknife and both Vancouver and Edmonton, to go along with the current daily flight to Calgary.

For Air North, flights between Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Ottawa will resume on April 30 and run until Sept. 10. 

The airline is also launching a new Whitehorse–Yellowknife–Toronto route that will run from May 10 to Oct. 6. 

Starting on May 2, WestJet will offer a daily flight from Yellowknife to Edmonton — an increase from the current two flights per week. 

And Canadian North says it will be adding a Sunday flight to the Mackenzie Valley. The airline was already planning to increase its available flights before the restrictions were removed.

These airlines’ decision to increase flights to and within the territory was welcomed by the local tourism sector.

Donna Lee Demarcke, president and CEO of NWT tourism, says the territory reopening to tourists marks an exciting moment after two very difficult years, and seeing all these flights come back is “a relief.” 

“It’s difficult, if we don’t have the flights in place, for the people to get here to come and visit the Northwest Territories,” she said.

While air access to the 33 communities in the territory is expected to improve in the coming weeks, Demarcke expects it to take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Though the demand is there, she says some people are still feeling hesitant about travel, particularly because of the remaining pandemic-related rules for travellers coming into the Northwest Territories. 

Currently, incoming travellers still have to fill out a self-isolation plan to enter the territory. 

“I think that’s the biggest barrier, only because it’s a really uncertain restriction,” she said. “People don’t really understand it, especially if you’re from outside the Northwest Territories because, anywhere else in Canada, you can travel from province to province and not have to fill out that form.

“If the plan actually does come to fruition and the public health emergency orders end [on] March 31st and all the restrictions are done April 1st, then yes, we think we will see more visitors and we’ll see a larger uptake in people coming to visit the Northwest Territories.

Foreign tourists return

Some operators say their summer season is already fully booked — largely with postponed trips from 2020. 

But others are still very much looking to book guests. 

Before the pandemic, Demarcke said tourists to the N.W.T. were mostly Canadian — and she expects Canadians will be the majority of travellers to the territory again this summer. 

Katherine Johnson, director of sales and marketing at Blachford Lake Lodge, says the lodge — located 100 kilometres east of Yellowknife and accessible by floatplane during the summer — had to adapt during the pandemic and focus on serving local patrons. 

“We have been very thankful for locals doing stay-cations and coming to see us,” said Johnson. 

Still, she said the reopening of the borders is “just awesome.”

Johnson says this year’s aurora season, which runs from mid-August to mid-October, is already almost fully booked. 

“I think we only have about five date options left,” she said.

Reservations are still open for fishing getaways in the summer — and for the first time in two years, foreign visitors are on the list. 

“We have guests from Canada, the United States and Australia,” she said.

But all these bookings can’t erase two years of constant adaptation through wave after wave of COVID-19. 

“We’re all happy things are opening up, but we’re all still a little bit on edge,” said Johnson.

The state of the industry

To understand the current state of the tourism industry in the territory, Tourism NWT sent out a survey to its 200 members earlier this week. 

Those results are expected by mid-April, but the industry already knows some things for sure. 

The return of leisure travel in the territory has brought new life to some businesses — but others couldn’t survive the pandemic. 

Still, though it has been a difficult time, Demarcke says she wants to focus on “hope” and look toward the future of the industry.

“We have a light at the end of the tunnel for [our members] so they can start building their business back up again,” said Demarcke.  

According to the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, more than 120,000 people visited the Northwest Territories in 2018-2019.



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