Neglected tourism industry seeks new lease on life

“We sank and sank and sank. There were no ads. There was nothing”


Nunavut’s starving, neglected tourism industry is like a hockey team that’s finished in last place for the past 10 seasons – it has nowhere to go but up.

Nunavut Tourism, Nunavut’s travel industry association, held its annual general meeting in Iqaluit last weekend, continuing the long, slow process of rebuilding an industry that’s been in decline since the 1980s.

Last year Nunavut Tourism claimed 120 members. This year, there are only 96, a sign that people leaving the tourism business aren’t being replaced.

At the same time, the Department of Sustainable Development, badly damaged by decentralization and staff vacancies, is incapable of producing tourism statistics, and enforcing guide and outfitter licence regulations.

So the association’s dwindling number of tourism operators and businesses now recognize that they can’t do the job alone.

“Cooperation and support by all the other government and land claims agencies which hold tourism-related responsibilities is essential if our industry is truly to move ahead as well it might,” Bill Lyall, the chair of Nunavut Tourism’s board, told AGM delegates in his president’s message.

To that end, Nunavut Tourism is heading up an interagency task force on tourism development, which brings together representatives from organizations such as the Government of Nunavut, Parks Canada, DIAND, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Arctic College and Heritage Canada.

Last weekend, Nunavut Tourism members passed a resolution asking that Nunavut’s minister of sustainable development, Olayuk Akesuk, upgrade the task force’s status – so that it can make formal recommendations to government.

But more political clout is just one of many things that Nunavut’s travel industry needs.

Maureen Bungaard, Nunavut Tourism’s executive director, said tourism development in Nunavut will take years of careful nurturing to restore.

In the 1980s, millions of dollars flowed into tourism development in Nunavut through the Canada-Northwest Territories economic development agreement. Advice on licencing, guide-training, marketing, and business issues was provided by regional employees of the old department of economic development. Tourism became a centrepiece of an economic development policy whose favourite buzz word was “community-based.”

But all that disintegrated in the early 1990s. The economic development agreements came to a halt. The territorial government slashed its budget and reorganized the old department of economic development. Licencing, funding, marketing and training were hived off to uncoordinated entities.

Suddenly, it got a lot harder for ordinary people in the communities to enter the tourism business.

“The impact of all these negatives has meant that people have not been drawn in, whether it be problems with training or problems with how to get licences. Many, many things have contributed to new businesses not coming in,” Bungaard said.

The administrative chaos caused by the division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut only made things worse.

In 1996, Nunavut Tourism was created out of the old NWT Tourism Industry Association – badly underfunded and understaffed, with just one employee, borrowed from the government.

“We sank and sank and sank. Our marketing budget was only $20,000. There were no ads. There was nothing,” Bungaard said.

The result? With little or no marketing, Nunavut received little promotion as a desirable travel destination. The short burst of publicity that Nunavut got from the creation of the new territory on April 1, 1999, did little to bring new tourists to Nunavut – because there were no resources to build on the opportunity.

“No destination in the world can afford to disappear from the world’s radar screen. Nunavut was in double trouble because we were brand new. Yes, we were in the news in ’99. If we had millions to capitalize on it, it might have had an impact. But really, it didn’t,” Bungaard said.

After 2001-02, Nunavut Tourism’s budget was increased by about $1 million a year, enough for them to pay for a modest advertising campaign and to develop a Nunavut “brand” – with a new Nunavut logo and marketing materials that use the strong red and yellow colours of the Nunavut flag.

But much, much more is needed, and the territorial government must start carrying out its tourism-related responsibilities, Bundgaard said.

The rebuilding effort must also include:

* Higher industry standards, backed by proper training and licence enforcement, which the GN isn’t doing now.
* Sustained marketing campaigns, backed by long-term, multi-year budgets.
* Real training for real tourism jobs, rather than make-work programs for the unemployed or unemployable.
* The production of tourism statistics, which the territorial government hasn’t done since 1996.
* More investment in tourism, from inside Nunavut and outside Nunavut.
* Co-ordination between government agencies to create more tourism products and attractions.

Of those, Bungaard said, the most important are training and the development of higher standards, because tourists who suffer bad experiences in Nunavut will not come back and, even worse, will spread the word that Nunavut is not a good destination.

“We really have to think about quality. This doesn’t mean that we should have Hyatt Regencies up here. Service is what justifies your high price. Service is caring for your visitors, making sure that they are safe and comfortable, that you live up to their expectations – and you’re friendly,” she said.

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