Yukon’s tourism industry is abuzz with anticipation as Canada's northernmost border opens next week for the first time since before the pandemic began, says the executive director of the Klondike Visitors Association in Dawson City.
Ricky Mawunganidze said the ferry that is used to access the border from the Canadian side began operating Thursday and the highway has been cleared of snow, which means people will be able to access the border when it reopens on June 1.
The Little Gold—Poker Creek border crossing is only opened during the summer months, and because of COVID-19, it hasn't been in operation since Sept. 22, 2019.
Mawunganidze said local businesses are eager for the season to begin.
"Our operators are experiencing high occupancy already. We're getting a lot of calls from people looking to come in June, which is the time when we start to get busy," he said in an interview. "Right now, folks are just getting themselves organized, and there's definitely a positive buzzabout the potential for more tourists coming in."
Located on the Top of the World Highway, the border crossing separates Yukon from Alaska. It's the main tourist route for those visiting Dawson City, the small mining and tourism town along the Yukon River, about 533 kilometres north of Whitehorse.
Accessing the border from Dawson City means taking a short ferry trip across the river, then a drive of about 100 kilometres.
Mawunganidze said the border is also a conduit for "family connection," particularly for the local First Nation community.
"This year is going to be a Moosehide Gathering year, which is the traditional gathering forTr'ondek Hwech'in, which hasn't been able to happen for the past few years," he said. "A lot of their Alaskan family will be coming over for that in July, so the border opening is critical to that continuation of culture and history."
Americans typically make up most of the territory's tourists. Results from Yukon's 2017-18 exit survey show there were 491,300 visitors to Yukon between November 2017 and October 2018. Sixty-two per cent were American.
Dawson City's website advertises that the town accepts American money.
The Canada Border Services Agency delayed the border's opening by about two weeks and it will close on Sept. 1, about two weeks earlier than before the pandemic. It says in a statement that it will also operate under reduced hours, closing at 7 p.m.
Mawunganidze said a delayed opening isn't unusual as it relies on the river breakup and snowmelt, but the town is lobbying the government to allow the border to remain open until mid-September.
“This year needs to be about uninterrupted operation so that we build back confidence in working in this industry. There's more desire this year to extend our season as far as we can."
Yukon Tourism Minister Ranj Pillai said in an interview that he is "really pleased" that all border crossings in the territory will be open this summer, noting about 13,000 people crossed the Little Gold border in 2019.
"All our government and private sector folks are working very closely to optimize the opportunity that everybody so dearly needs after the two years that the tourism sector went through, and I think we're in good shape going into the summer," he said.
Pillai said another new tourism revenue stream comes in the form of direct flights that are now being offered between Whitehorse and Toronto. The first flight took off May 10.
"It's pretty big, having a direct opportunity to go from the Yukon into the busiest airport in Canada," he said. "That's going to be just another opportunity for us and we're really focusing on making sure that we people in this market know how amazing Yukon is.”
Mawunganidze said tourism in Dawson actually boomed last year due to Canadian visitors, creating a new challenge: staffing shortages.
He said the industry depends on young workers moving to Dawson for the summer to fill seasonal jobs, but this hasn't happened since 2019. With about 200 positions still available and unfilled, he said operators are concerned they won't have enough workers again this year.
"We desperately need seasonal labour. We have a plethora of amazing jobs and great experiences, and we want people to come join us for the summer."