Churchill tourism operators pivot to entice Manitobans amid pandemic

Churchill bills itself as the polar capital of the world. Ashley Park/submitted

For decades, Churchill, Man., ecotourism outfitters like John Gunter’s have relied on international tourists keen on travelling north to see wildlife.

But this year, with travel restricted due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the border closed, the northern tourism industry had to quickly pivot to entice Manitobans and other Canadians to visit their own relative backyards 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“Our focus had to very quickly shift from hosting foreign leisure travellers to retooling our offerings to better accommodate Manitobans and western Canadians,” said Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, which operates all-inclusive trips to see polar bears, beluga whales and the northern lights.

Prior to COVID-19, about 75 to 80 per cent of the company’s customers came from abroad, with most of the Canadians from eastern Canada or British Columbia.

That’s meant unbundling the company’s typically all-inclusive fare.

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Read more: Stay-at-home tourism a silver lining to pandemic restrictions, says Tourism Manitoba

“Although Manitobans are comfortable buying guided group trips when we go to places like western Europe or to Africa, Manitobans don’t buy guided group trips within our own province,” he said.

“We’re unbundling the flight transportation or ground transportation between Winnipeg and Churchill. We’re unbundling the ground transportation in Churchill — hotels, meals, tourism activities.”

Gunter said the peak polar bear viewing season is typically in the fall, but he suspects fewer people will travel north this year.

“Taking a family vacation to Churchill for four or five days is different than going to Lockport for a hot dog — there’s a lot more planning, there’s a lot more saving, a lot more logistics, a lot more options to consider,” he said.

“We’re trying to offset our losses from this year at this point — nobody is in a money-making position this year.”

The northern town’s mayor, Michael Spence, has said previously although international and out-of-province tourism to Churchill is down, some Manitobans have taken the trip north.

“Travel Manitoba and the operators here locally got together and did an excellent job of marketing, attracting Manitobans into our community. It was nice to see Manitobans visiting the top of the province,” Spence said in a previous interview.

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Click to play video: 'Churchill’s response to COVID-19' Churchill’s response to COVID-19
Churchill’s response to COVID-19 – Apr 22, 2020

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