It may be a hackneyed phrase, but most of us can agree that the Northwest Territories is, as NWT Tourism likes to remind us, pretty darn “spectacular.” We’ve got the aurora, pristine surroundings and countless opportunities for outdoor activities, from fishing to snowmobiling, hunting to canoeing. It should, all things considered, be a great place to visit.
Yet, the sight of Asian tourists wandering Yellowknife’s barren wintry streets in their telltale blue parkas or chowing down at one of our local eateries can’t help but evoke twinge of empathy; you came all the way here for this?
A group of Chinese-Canadian entrepreneurs is trying to change that, upping the game in town when it comes to tourism offerings and cashing in on the boom in Chinese tourists in the process.
What’s on the cards? Well, if all goes to plan, a new Explorer-sized hotel/resort in Yellowknife (not the same as the boutique hotel project geared towards Chinese visitors on the Dettah road), several new restaurants and a whole whack of money flowing into local tour operators and businesses.
Northwest Investment Capital Enterprises Inc., or NICE for short, was founded last summer following Premier Bob McLeod and former ITI-minister David Ramsay’s visit to China. (They’re the mysterious group Ramsay was meeting with last summer). The group of investors, who own and operate a jade and gold mine in Northern B.C., first took interest in the territory’s mining potential. But as commodity markets declined over the course of last year, they’ve refocused on one of the territory’s few growth industries: tourism.
“We see there’s a big wave of Chinese tourists coming to Yellowknife in 2016 and 2017, and whether or not they continue to come will depend on how well we provide that service,” says the company’s chief operations officer Liang Chen, who made Yellowknife his home this past year. “We want to boost up the service level in Yellowknife. We don’t have to do that all on our own, we want to work with businesses that are already here.”
The group is moving quickly; they’ve already spent a significant amount of money marketing Yellowknife over in China, and the next step is building service infrastructure in town.
“The government is doing a great job trying to get other people to notice us,” says Chen. “But we people in the private sector need to step up and do more than what’s the normal standard here. I think the standard here is set too low.”
Heightening the experience
Yellowknife has certainly seen an increase in Chinese tourism: last year over 3100 Chinese visitors passed through the Northern Frontier Visitor’s centre, twice as many as the previous year.
“If I’m a tourist, I spent a lot of money coming to the North and I could have used that same money and got better service in lots of other places, so why come to Yellowknife?” – Liang Chen
Chen chalks the increase up to a Chinese middle class, which has boomed over the past seven or eight years and is looking for exotic vacation opportunities further abroad than the usual destinations of Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and the like. Only 0.5 percent of the 55 million Chinese tourists who travelled abroad in 2013 came to Canada, says Chen. And of that only a tiny percent came to Yellowknife. But that is still significant for a city our size, and a number that’s set to grow, especially with the dropping Canadian dollar — so long as the increasingly sophisticated holidaymakers aren’t turned away by existing services.
“I do frequent flights to Vancouver and on every flight there are tourists and I try to talk to them. They come from all over the place, and on the way back a lot of them are a little bit disappointed,” says Chen. “If I’m a tourist… I spent a lot of money coming to the North and I could have used that same money and got better service in lots of other places, so why come to Yellowknife?”
The company is hoping to fill this gap in the market by investing tens of millions of dollars in a wide range of offerings. Chen wouldn’t speak too much about the hotel /resort they’re planning, only that it would be up-scale, roughly the size of the Explorer and will likely feature, “on-site restaurants, more services, maybe even activities, which the tourists may be able to get directly from the hotel rather than going off and not knowing where to get it. We’re trying to work with all the operators in Yellowknife to move this forward.”
The company is also hoping to partner with existing businesses looking to up their service game, by providing management assistance, capital for infrastructure improvements and linking them up with education institutions in the south like culinary and hospitality schools.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to look at what Yellowknife can take. Although we’re not going to make excessive investment in things for no reasons.”
Longer-term, they’re looking at projects outside of Yellowknife as well: “As far as the tourism infrastructure and services, that has to happen in Yellowknife because Yellowknife is the hub for the rest of the territory. But we are looking for some specialized tour operations in other regions in the territory and mining opportunities as well.”
Six months after the company was founded, they’re starting to look for management-level staff. When the various projects get rolling, likely starting in the fall, Chen expects the company to grow to several dozen employees, a mix of locals and hospitality experts from down south.
NICE plans to keep hyping Yellowknife over in China, mainly through wide-reaching social media advertising, as well as putting money into advertising in southern Canada. Around eighty percent of Chinese visitors come to Canada to visit family or friends, says Chen, so marketing Yellowknife to Chinese-Canadians is a particularly effective way to spend promotional dollars.
“We’re not looking for people to use our facilities exclusively, we’re really just looking to increase that tourist population and everyone will get their share,” says Chen.