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Transforming visitors with indigenous experiences

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A delegate at the 2019 NWT Tourism Conference experiences a spectacular immersive activity via a 360° video
A delegate at the 2019 NWT Tourism Conference experiences a spectacular immersive activity via a 360° video viewed through a special virtual reality headset. The display is part of the new NWT Tourism “The NWT Will Change You” campaign. © Sarah Pruys/NWT Tourism

“Travel is the catalyst to personal growth and introspection,” so says Jake Haupert from the Transformational Travel Council and the last speaker at the Northwest Territories (NWT) Tourism Conference that took place at The Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife November 5-7, 2019. It was a fitting ending to a information-packed and inspiring three days that included tourism sector consultations and break-out sessions, government updates, case studies in community tourism development, the sharing of indigenous experiences, statistical analyses and research findings, marketing tips, and the NWT Tourism Annual General Meeting, all under the theme of “Transformative Tourism”.

Tourism has become a key component of the NWT economy. Many operators are looking at ways to grow and improve their businesses and add offerings for travellers seeking out-of-the-ordinary, value-added or custom-specific tours and experiences. With the GNWT Department of Industry, Tourism & Investment developing their tourism strategy for the next five years, besides professional development and networking, the event provided the opportunity for operators and stakeholders to collaborate on ideas to help strengthen the industry and increase visitor spending. Break-out sessions included the following sectors: fishing, hunting, paddling; aurora; culture; parks; general touring/ outdoor adventure; accommodations; and other services like airlines, restaurants and cruise ships.

Results from the last five years show that tourism spending has increased 48 per cent since 2014. The number of leisure travellers has increased in that time frame 30.9 per cent. There is a 93.7 per cent increase in tourism operators offering indigenous cultural tourism with 62 operators in 2018 versus 32 in 2014. Aurora viewing has seen double-digit growth year after year. The fishing and hunting sectors have rebounded. The general touring and outdoor adventure experiences have seen solid growth in 2018-2019, with a 48 per cent increase in visitations. Tourism visitors are mainly coming from Canada and China, with the recent growth driven from these same areas. Chinese tourists spend the most in the NWT. Canada also ranks third in destination awareness for Germans. Visitations from German tourists to the North have doubled from previous years.

The $3M per year investments in infrastructure at NWT Parks have been successful with 20-25 projects completed each year to enhance access to Parks.

The Government of the NWT’s new Protected Areas Act with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is furthering meaningful partnerships with indigenous participation through tourism and conservation efforts. Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve is the NWT’s newest protected area. This successful agreement with the Federal Government protects 26,376 km2 around Lutsel K’e from mining development. With the purchase of the Frontier Fishing Lodge in October 2019, the GNWT wants to expand the market by rebranding the area as an eco-tourist destination, which would include authentic experiences at the new Park Reserve, provide guiding and outfitting services and a Visitor’s Centre.

The Tuktoyaktuk Highway, Canada’s only highway to the Arctic Ocean, has seen a 43 per cent increase in the number of tourists. It is viewed as the new “hot destination” for Rvers, motorcyclists, and general motorists, with visitors including Asian tourists, business travellers, researchers and those visiting family and friends. A Heritage Centre is in the process of being created with plans including a full-service RV campground.

Because of the reduction of sea ice, cruise ships can now travel further west. Four ships with 1,400 passengers came to Ulukhaktok in 2019 for the authentic shore experience, including cultural demonstrations like drummers and dancers, guided community walks, and opportunities to purchase local arts and crafts.

Presentations by advertience helped attendees understand the science behind advertising digitally, including tips on how operators’ postings on Trip Advisor can boost their credibility and drive more visitors from the online travel market to choose their accommodation or service over competitors.

The Keynote Address on the final day of the Conference was gritty and inspirational as world traveller Bruce Kirkby enthusiastically described his family travels and experiences and encouraged operators to communicate their stories with clients to share the transformative power of the North.

The showing of the Aurora Love documentary wrapped up the Conference sessions and provided insights into two couples reasons for wanting to travel to Canada’s NWT to experience the Northern Lights in this upbeat, inspiring film. Later that evening at the Gala Dinner, the NWT Tourism Awards Ceremony took place, recognizing many who have made positive contributions to tourism in the territory.

$1.7 Trillion is spent globally on tourism. Of that, $102 Billion is spent in Canada with $210 M spent in the NWT. The potential for growth is tremendous. NWT Tourism says the North will change travellers. Operators were sure to be excited about the many insights and tips this stimulating and informative Conference provided to help them give visitors to the North that feeling of awe, curiosity and maybe even change them!