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Indigenous tourism operators in Yukon hit hard by COVID-19

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This article was first published by APTN News Canada. It has been republished with permission.

Despite pandemic challenges, Indigenous tourism operators in the Yukon say they're looking forward to 2021 season.

Tommy Taylor is one of them.

Taylor, who is from Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation, is the owner of Fishwheel Charters, an Indigenous boat tour in Dawson City.

He operates the tour along with his partner Dawn Kisoun, who is Inuvialuktun.

By now, the tour should have seen as many as 800 tourists this summer â€" but with COVID-19 and border closures, it only saw 15.

"The minute they announced the borders were going to be closed, we had cancellation after cancellation after cancellation that we had people pre-book two years ahead," Kisoun told APTN News.

As a result of the poor season, she said Fishwheel Charters lost 75 per cent of this year's revenue, and a summer worker had to be let go.

Operator James Allen is also feeling the sting of COVID-19.

Allen is the former chief of Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, and now operates Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp with his wife in Haines Junction.

While they've only been in operation for a few years, Allen said business was booming before the pandemic, and their camp would typically see up to fifty tourists a year.

"Well, I haven't seen any tourists actually," Allen said of this year's season.

"The cancellations haven't helped us at all. As a First Nations (person), starting off a business can be shaky, especially out here. We're not in the mainstream, and people have to drive out to my place and it's hard to find."

"Unprecedented challenge"

Harmony Hunter, tourism officer for Yukon First Nations Tourism and Culture, said that while none of the Yukon's 17 tourism-related businesses have officially closed, this past summer was an "unprecedented challenge" for most operators.

"Some businesses are taking a pause. They've shut down operations for the summer, they're taking a minute, they're out on the land being with their families," said Hunter.

Hunter said last year tourism in the Yukon generated $400 million and created 3,500 jobs.

With several Indigenous operators experiencing decreased tour numbers or out of work all together, Hunter said many are now "pivoting."

"Some businesses have pivoted, which is the new sexy term in the industry and around the business communities. We've seen some of our operators do really great pivots and explore other options."

For instance, Hunter said one tour operator used her transportation infrastructure to work in the morel mushroom industry this summer.

"She has of course not been able to do her regular scheduled tours...so that was a really neat pivot."

Supports available

And it's not just the Yukon that's been hit hard by COVID-19.

Indigenous Tourism of Canada estimates 32,000 employees lost their job this year and 1,140 Indigenous businesses will close.

The expected GDP loss for the sector this year is $1.4 billion.

While Hunter said the final numbers for the Yukon are still being calculated, "what's really critical now is the recovery, support, and the lifting up of those businesses."

Both Fishwheel Charters and Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp have received governmental and territorial grants, and all 17 companies have received a $25,000 non-repayable development and stimulus grant for Indigenous businesses.

Yukon First Nations Tourism and Culture is also helping operators apply for the Yukon Elevate Tourism Program (ELEVATE), which aims to help all Yukon operators to restructure their business for the 2021 season and beyond.

Mainly funded by CanNor, ELEVATE expects around 100 operators to apply for the program, which will provide up to $15,000 for implementation funding for the 2021 season, as well as up to $5,000 for obtaining professional and expert advice.

Kisoun said the grants have been a lifeline.

"Every little grant helps us here and there, helps us survive, so we can continue running the boat tour. Every little dollar helps. We're not looking for a handout, we're looking for a hand up."

A better season next year

In spite of economic hardships caused by the pandemic, Allen said with no tourists at his camp, it's given him time to build much-needed infrastructure.

"We actually just put in the power. We have a generator that we have the camp all electrified to right now. So, this COVID-19 has given us a break to be able to do those things."

While it's still too early to say what next year will look like, Allen said he's willing to play the hand he's dealt.

"My philosophy is that I take whatever is dealt. I play the cards. I don't worry too much, because I'm past that stage in life."

By Sara Connors

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