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True North Far East is dedicated to chronicling Canada-China relations and the surprising ways the two countries are influencing each other

Chinese tourists flock to Canada's Far North

Chinese tourists flock to Canada's Far North

The influx of Chinese tourists to Canada’s three territories is boosting the local economy and empowering indigenous businesses and communities.

Just the Basics:

  • The number of Chinese tourists visiting Canada’s North is growing rapidly, especially among the high net worth individual (HNWI) traveller demographic

  • Chinese interest in indigenous culture and heritage is boosting indigenous businesses and communities in the North, but Canada needs to do more to promote said ventures

  • If Canada-China relations continue to be fraught with animosity, northern communities may suffer from a decrease in the number of Chinese tourists visiting the region

It started as a routine day for Yukon archaeologist Kirby Booker, as he surveyed the site for Western Copper’s proposed Casino Mine. Booker has worked at dozens of similar sites, conducting archaeological impact assessments for proposed developments. With clients ranging from multinational corporations to First Nations, Booker’s employer - Ecofor - has worked to uncover and preserve local history across the region. His work at the Casino Mine site was supposed to be routine, if he found anything, he figured it would probably be a couple arrowheads, perhaps some campsite remains or other trinkets: what he found instead was a coin. Not a Canadian or American coin, nor a colonial era piece, but rather a 17th century coin bearing the name of the Kangxi Emperor, China’s longest reigning monarch.

Surprisingly, this discovery is not the only evidence of Chinese paraphernalia in Canada’s far north, as three such coins have been found in the past twenty years: the oldest one dates from between 1403 to 1429. This most recent find, minted between 1667 and 1671, is thought to have been brought to the area by Russian traders gathering sea otter pelts, who used Chinese coins in their trade with local First Nations. The coins were valued by local peoples for use as trinkets, ceremonial rattles and even woven into shirts; the jingling metal providing a rhythmic sound to the wearer’s dancing. “The Tlingit had a dance with jackets with 200 to 1,000 Chinese coins stitched into them,” notes Ecofor cultural resource manager, James Mooney.

The image of First Nations in Canada’s north dancing to the tune of Chinese money is one with surprising currency (pun intended), as there has been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Canada’s three northern territories in recent years. Drawn by the majesty of the landscape, the beauty of the aurora, and the region’s indigenous cultures, Chinese tourists are fast becoming a major source of revenue, especially for indigenous businesses. “China is the holy grail in a way, especially for North American provinces, territories and states that are on the West Coast. It is a massive market so even a tenth of a percentage point of the market [is a] huge number of travellers,” explains Robin Anderson of Tourism Yukon. To help facilitate ties with China, Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui visited the NWT and Yukon in September 2015 to discuss, among other things, promoting tourism. Ambassador Luo also met Yukon Deputy Premier and Minister for Tourism, Elaine Taylor to discuss tourism cooperation back in February 2016. That same year, Chinese state media, CCTV featured Yukon adventure tours on their website.

Northern Canada look to secure slice of Chinese tourism market

Chinese tourists contributed $7.3 million to the economy of northern Canada in Q3 2018, or around 4.4 percent of total foreign tourist spending in the region. While this is lower than the eight percent of Canada-wide tourism revenue that Chinese tourists account for, China is now among the top three source countries for tourists to the North. Chinese tourists also spend on average more per person ($2,668, not including airfare) while in Canada than any other nationality, and Chinese tourist numbers are increasingly rapidly, in part due to 2018 being designated as the Canada-China Year of Tourism. More than 737,000 Chinese tourists visited Canada in 2018, making them the third largest group after visitors from the U.S and UK. Last year also saw Canada welcome the most tourists ever since modern record keeping began in 1972.

With regards to northern Canada, polling by Destination Canada has shown that twelve percent of Chinese tourists said they would likely visit the North, compared to eleven percent of British and seven percent of American travellers. Not only is Chinese interest in the North higher than among Canada’s two largest tourist source countries, it is even higher than domestic interest, as only seven percent of Canadians reported that they were likely to visit the North. For instance, the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Northwest Territories (NWT) rose from 1,800 in 2013 to over 20,000 in 2018, an increase of over 1,000 percent. By comparison the entire population of the NWT in 2018 was only 44,445. Chinese tourists are now the fourth largest visitor demographic in the NWT behind Canadians, Americans and Japanese.

Capturing a slice of the Chinese market is vital for northern tourism, as worldwide currently one in three Arctic tourists are Chinese, with tours to both poles ranging in price from $38,000 - $152,000. Travel to the North (and South) is considered a luxury excursion, a definite bucket-list item for China’s nouveau riche. As such, the Canadian tourism sector is focusing on high-end clients from China, explains Robin Anderson, global marketing manager for Tourism Yukon. “We do see some younger travellers from the China market from mainland China itself, but it tends to be in that kind of 45 to 65 target demographic. Which is perfect for us, they generally are a bit more affluent, they’re usually well educated and [...] experienced travellers,” notes Anderson.

NWT Industry, Tourism and Infrastructure Minister, Wally Schumann is also hopeful that the 2018 China-Canada Year of Tourism, and greater interest from Chinese tourists in general, will play a vital role in helping the territory reach its goal of a $207 million tourism industry by 2020. Representatives from the NWT government (who have been learning to use WeChat) also attended trade shows in Beijing and Shanghai in June 2018, with an editorial in Northern News Services Limited (NNSL News) calling on city council to get on Weibo - the Chinese version of Twitter - to better promote the city. It does not end there, as the iconic Explorer Hotel now has a Chinese language version of its website, and Arctic Tours Canada is hiring more Mandarin and Cantonese interpreters.

Similarly, around 3,500 Chinese tourists are making the trip to the Yukon each year (figures for Nunavut were not available), with half a dozen Yukon businesses actively marketing in China, including Air North as well as various hotels and tour operators. Arctic Colour Tours, which focuses on winter tourism and specifically caters to Chinese tourists, welcomed over 1,000 guests in 2017, with plans to double that number in 2018. Manager Daniel Mao explains that he is now working with four to five wholesale travel agents in Vancouver who specialize in the Chinese market in order to boost his company’s exposure. Another Chinese doing business up north is Liang Chen. Originally from Beijing, Liang is now managing director of Northern Gateway Consulting Services, a firm helping local businesses access the Chinese market. The ability to book flights from Vancouver on short notice is also an important factor behind rising Chinese tourist numbers. Combined with abundant direct flights to China, existing domestic air connections are making journeying to places like Yellowknife simply a matter of a quick transfer.

The importance of Indigenous tourism for Canada’s North

Regional hubs like Yellowknife and Whitehorse are benefiting from the up-tick in Chinese tourism, yet some are concerned that indigenous culture and heritage is not being sufficiently promoted. Bert Archer writing in the National Post, notes that “there’s a deep, broad abiding fascination with [this] fundamental aspect of Canada. And we’re all but ignoring indigenous Canadians and the tourist businesses they could, and in many instances already do, have.” Bobby Drygeese of B. Dene Adventures shares similar sentiments, claiming that NWT is not offering enough opportunities for tourists to participate in indigenous culture, especially since said culture is one of the main reasons people are coming to the North in the first place.

This is borne out by surveys compiled by Destination Canada and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) indicating that twenty-seven percent of Chinese tourists in the past three years reported taking part in indigenous experiences, with thirty-five percent of respondents interested in doing so in the future; a substantial potential market. Moreover, when asked to rank their top ten reasons for travelling to Canada, Chinese tourists included aboriginal culture, traditions and history among their top ten. Compare this with responses from Canadian tourists visiting other parts of Canada, whose aggregate results did not see aboriginal experiences rank in their top ten wish lists.

“There’s a deep, broad abiding fascination with [this] fundamental aspect of Canada. And we’re all but ignoring indigenous Canadians and the tourist businesses they could, and in many instances already do, have.”
— Bert Archer, National Post

The underdeveloped state of indigenous tourism in Canada is demonstrated by the fact that despite the ITAC’s over 1,500 member firms, only a few hundred are currently able to process online bookings or negotiate with tour companies. Similarly, less than 200 indigenous tourism businesses are considered export-ready by the ITAC. Nevertheless, the ITAC already surpassed its three main 2021 goals in 2018; namely, increasing indigenous tourism revenues by $300 million to $1.7 billion ($400 million increase achieved); sustaining 40,223 indigenous tourism jobs (41,153 as of 2018); and growing the number of export-ready businesses to 130 (139 as of 2018). 

Despite this impressive growth, the ITAC’s budget remains a paltry $5.19 million for 2019/2020: imagine what could be accomplished with more sustained federal and provincial support. The ITAC and other proponents of indigenous tourism can easily point to New Zealand’s success in promoting Maori culture. The New Zealand government promised NZD $10 million ($8.72 million) to promote Maori tourism in 2017. Maori tourism employed around 14,000 people, and generated NZD $566 million ($493 million) in 2017 - and this from an economy ten times smaller than Canada’s. Perhaps most importantly, more than half of all visitors to New Zealand participated in Maori-related activities in 2017.

Closer to home, northern indigenous tourism businesses can point to the efforts of British Columbia which in 2005/06 decided to invest the modest sum of $10 million over five years to promote indigenous tourism: by 2017 the indigenous tourism sector contributed $705 million to B.C’s GDP. Speaking on this rapid growth, Aboriginal Tourism marketing manager, Paula Amos explains that “we’re seeing now that First Nations are really looking at tourism as an economic driver in the communities, where even two or three years ago they didn’t.”

Chinese tourists are drawn to the spirit of adventure that surrounds life in Canada’s North

Without sustained support, even exemplary northern indigenous tourism outfits are stymied. Take the fate of Arviat Community Ecotourism, which was founded in Nunavut’s second largest settlement in 2013. The community even managed to entice cruise ships to visit, yet disbanded just six months after winning the Best Community Tourist Operation in the World award from the World Travel & Tourism Council when the company director’s contract was not renewed. Arviat’s tourism operation fell prey to the lack of regional and federal support for indigenous tourism in the North, but hopefully the sector’s growth, in part spurred by Chinese tourists, will prompt future assistance.

Not all northern indigenous tourism firms are doomed to share Arviat’s fate. In fact, many are being established or expanded thanks in no small part to the growth of Chinese tourism. Speaking to the National Post, ITAC head, Keith Henry explains that he was “just in China a couple of weeks ago. I find [Chinese] really want to know the history and culture of Canada, more than people realize. What’s the actual history of this land?” Keith says he is repeatedly asked. “It can’t be just since 1867.” Kylik Kisoun Taylor of Tundra North Tours also travelled to China to promote northern tourism:

“The opportunity to take part in this trade mission to China is very important for NWT businesses especially in smaller communities. While the Chinese market has been very strong in Yellowknife, visitors are also looking for supplemental products outside of the capital. This trade mission is a chance to showcase these products to one of the largest tourism markets in the world.”

Indigenous businesses and communities in the North (and across Canada) are seeking to capitalize on this wellspring of Chinese interest in Aboriginal culture. Alongside businesses like B. Dene Adventures, the Deline Gotˊine First Nation has entered into a partnership with Beijing Best Tour Company to bring twenty-four Chinese tourists per week to the Gray Goose Lodge in Deline. “This is great news for Deline and the Sahtu region, and its just the first step in a series of potential agreements that will lead to further economic development that truly benefits the people of the region,” notes Sahtu MLA, Daniel McNeely. 

The Deline Gotˊine government is seeking to promote itself as a top international tourist destination, citing their self-government success and operation of the Tsá Tué UNESCO Biosphere Reserve near Great Bear Lake (the first run by indigenous people in the world). The Detah First Nation near Yellowknife is also constructing the $25 million Skywatch Lodge, where guests can view the aurora from a heated infinity pool. Blachford Lake Lodge, which sits on the land of the Akaitcho Dene is also increasingly catering to Chinese tourists (including hiring Mandarin speaking staff), with forty-percent of its guests now coming from the Asia-Pacific. As such “we also try to incorporate Dene culture into our tours during the aurora tourist seasons as well. Our Asian guests love it. We hire local Dene people as guides for ice fishing and on the land, for harvesting gum from fir trees in the spring and making birch bark canoes. For Dene it is a sense of pride as the lodge sits on their traditional territories,” explains sales and marketing manager Katherine Johnson.

The Bottom Line

Indigenous tourism businesses may be forging ahead despite a lack of adequate government support, but they are still at the mercy of larger geo-political forces. The diplomatic rancour which characterizes current bilateral ties between Beijing and Ottawa could have serious knock-on effects for a northern tourism sector increasingly betting on Chinese tourists. Four days after the arrest of Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou, then Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly cancelled her trip to China, and a NWT trade mission was cancelled following Premier Bob McLeod’s concerns over the plight of detained Canadians. Canada’s federal tourism agency, Destination Canada, has also suspended ads on Weibo as tensions have continued to simmer.

While federal promotion efforts have been halted, Premier McLeod remains cautiously optimistic about the NWT’s long-term appeal among Chinese tourists. “I have not seen a decrease in [Chinese tourists]. It could be a concern, the Chinese could see fit to revoke the designation of Canada as an approved nation […], but we haven’t seen that yet. We continue marketing the Northwest Territories to Chinese tourists, [and] I think we are prepared to look at further investment,” notes McLeod.

On the other hand, data released by the Canada-China Business Council (CCBC) shows that around twenty percent of businesses in both countries reported postponements or cancellations due to tensions, and one-quarter of Chinese respondents reported cancelling or postponing travel plans to Canada. One-fifth of Chinese respondents were also concerned about travelling to Canada. Ying Lai, part-owner of 318 Arctic Colour Tours in Whitehorse told CTV News that while he has not had any cancellations, he and other Whitehorse tour operators have noticed a decrease in bookings, with the 2019 tourism season getting off to a slow start compared to previous years.

It remains to be seen whether the slowdown in the number of Chinese bookings is due to tense political relations, or other factors, such as the slowing Chinese economy. Northern tourism-related businesses need to ensure that their client base is sufficiently diversified in order to ride out any unpleasant fallout from Ottawa and Beijing’s disagreements. There exists a very real threat that businesses will become too reliant on Chinese money, especially given the gold-rush mentality that surrounds the massive Chinese market. The Klondike Gold Rush did not bring sustainable prosperity to the North; a boom-town view of Chinese tourists will not either.

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