With Chinese visitors outstripping Japanese visitors this year, according to the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre, it’s time to take another look at what that means for the future of Yellowknife’s tourism industry (First published February 17, 2016):
Yellowknife, it turns out, isn’t a tent city of a few hundred people. This was a genuine surprise for some high-end Chinese tourists in town over the past few days.
EDGE met the group of eighteen travellers at the Museum Café shortly before they flew out, to hear some first-hand thoughts on the Yellowknife tourism experience. They had been here for four days, to see the aurora via the Banff-based tour company Canadian Scenery Travel.
“They didn’t know we have a city here, they thought it wasn’t even a town, just a bunch of tents,” said Canadian Scenery Travel’s president Isaac Wu, acting as a translator. Not everyone thought this, of course. Some people, like Susan Xue, from Beijing, who had previously travelled to the Norwegian Arctic archipelago Svalbard, expected the opposite.
“She felt with those places, even though the altitude is higher, they feel more developed, have more shops, more places to go, more restaurants, more choice of hotels,” said Wu.
The good news: most of the visitors said they enjoyed their time here and would recommend Yellowknife to friends back in China. Some even said they’d come back, though probably in the less-frigid months.
But there’s certainly room for improvement: “They’re not very happy with the stores and restaurants here. The restaurants overall are okay, but the taste is not to their expectations,” said Wu, translating the rapid-fire responses from several of the group. Some said they’d be keen on high quality Japanese or Chinese cuisine. Others wanted “to go to local homes… and try some snacks, or a meal or tapas food made of the local products.”
There was a general sense that a truly high-end hotel could up YK’s tourism game. And a number of people said they’d be interested in more tourism experiences involving Indigenous culture.
“They want to see unique culture and buildings,” said Wu.
Overall, what are people looking for?
“Some of them are interested to know about the education here because they have kids, some want to know about the immigration policy. But for most people it’s the natural beauty: aurora, the Rockies, Niagara Falls, those are the major attractions.”
One stone, two birds
Their responses seem worth listening to for local entrepreneurs sounding the depths of the growing Chinese tourism market — something that’s increasingly heralded by government and business folks alike as a buoy for our listing economy in the coming years. There certainly seem to be niches waiting to be filled; enough to attract a significant influx of capital, with Northwest Investment Capital Enterprises Inc. planning a major resort/hotel project and a second company planning a smaller boutique hotel on the road to Dettah.
Business may get a further boost this summer when Hainan Airlines starts offering direct flights between Beijing and Calgary. This will likely bring more Chinese tourists to the North, as part of packaged Rocky Mountains/Aurora trips to Banff and Yellowknife, says Wu, whose own company began doing these two-stage tours in 2015.
“Yellowknife needs to compete with other aurora destinations in the world like Northern Europe, Norway, Sweden, Finland, those places, Alaska, even Whitehorse. And Banff needs to compete with other national parks.
“With these bundled products it’s a value-added product, so those people who are debating between Northern Europe and Canada will be like, ‘Let’s go to Canada to see the aurora, that way we can visit Banff, we can visit the Rockies’… And people debating between Yellowstone in the U.S. or Banff, they’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Canada because we can see aurora at the same time.’ So it’s like one stone, two birds,” says Wu.
“Of course you have to distinguish between whether they’re inbound into Canada from China or whether they’re North American Chinese families… [these are] very different markets.”
But “both categories are looking positive for sure,’ he adds.