Check against delivery
Good day all and welcome to the NWTT Tourism AGM. Thank you Donna Lee and NWTT for the invitation to speak at this event again this year. And congratulations on being able to organize an in-person gathering for the first time in three years.
There is not much about COVID-19 that I think of as positive but it has broken down some barriers of distance and helped us all to find ways to stay close, even when we cannot be physically together. For me, today, as a result of being in the midst of our capital planning Legislative session, I cannot be physically with you but I am very pleased to not miss out on this opportunity to speak to you virtually.
For the first time since I have the privilege to hold this portfolio, I am also pleased to be able to use this opportunity to focus not predominantly on pandemic relief or recovery but with our sights set on the future.
That said, I know that the post-pandemic recovery is not over and the recoveries that we have already seen have not been even across regions or even within all segments of different industries. So I will still also touch briefly on some of the programs and services that have and are available to help spur that recovery as well as the recovery in the tourism sector before speaking about opportunities on the horizon.
But first, I want to tell a couple of stories. Last summer I was on a regional tour with the MLA for the Sahtu. We attended a government meeting in Délı̨nę where we had the good fortune to be there at the same time as a community fish camp was taking place further down Great Bear Lake. When asked if we had time to go for lunch, there was only one answer. First we each offered a small amount of tobacco to the lake. It was a simple ceremony but started our journey in a unique and memorable way. We spent the afternoon at the camp where we had a chance to try scrapping a moose hide – I think to the laughing delight of those trying to teach me. We also watched as Elders filleted monster sized trout. It was the most incredible thing to witness: they were so skilled and I was mesmerized watching as the fish were transformed to be hung from a wood rack built over a fire for drying. We capped it off with a feast: tables set up overlooking the lake and fish cooked many ways over large outdoor wood grills along with heaps of warm Bannock. It was a meal I will never forget.
The opportunity to immerse myself in the day to day activities of Délı̨nę’s cultural reality was an experience I will never forget. I know that the idea of capturing this experience as a tourism product in Délı̨nę or anywhere else is not new – but it’s also one that I believe still has merit and potential - and from what I am hearing about tourism trends – is still worth pursuing.
My other story is from this summer. Assembly’s Caucus was holding our annual meetings in at Frontier Lodge just outside Łutselk'e and recently purchased by the LKDFN. One afternoon I climbed the hill around which Łutselk'e sits and felt like I was looking out over a vast, lost ocean. It is of course Great Slave Lake but there was not a boat, not a building, not a person in sight. Only water, cliffs, rocks and sky stretching out impossibly far. The feeling was incredible. Another afternoon, we went out fishing. Confession: I don’t fish. I rely on my spouse and kids to bring home fresh Prelude lake dinner. But again, there was no saying no. First we pulled into a small bay to watch a muskox chewing reeds at the edge of the water. Then we dropped our lines. I was expecting a slow afternoon spent sitting on the water. But then there was a tug – fish on. I reeled and it pulled, and I reeled and it pulled, until eventually I pulled up the biggest trout I have ever seen. With that initial excitement passed I dropped the line again. And moments later, another tug. And it went on like this for two hours before we joined up again as a larger group for an incredible shore lunch with appys served on spruce boughs and fish cooked at least three different ways.
Either one of these experiences would be bucket list level trips for many people. They are exclusive, they are authentic. In Délı̨nę it was good luck to be at the right place to participate in the modern expression of a traditional event; and in Łutselk'e the LKDFN are now the owners of this incredible tourism product, and, I learned used the downtime of COVID to do what would have been years to slowly renovate to do it all in a single go.
At the beginning of October I attended a meeting of the Council of Canadian Tourism Ministers and two of the strongest themes for predicted industry growth were Indigenous cultural experiences and opportunities for sustainable or regenerative tourism. Other jurisdictions are thinking about where or how to create these products. I realized: authentic experiences and sustainable tourism is a big part we already have in the NWT. Our challenges are to see the value in these opportunities that surround us and connect those looking for it, to the experiences that exist throughout the north; while encouraging and supporting prospective operators so that they have the necessary commercial infrastructure and business set up.
I feel confident that we can collectively succeed. One of the reasons I feel confident, is because of the way in which we all worked together to get through the pandemic.
Since the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, government-funded supports and programs for tourism in the NWT have exceeded $13 million dollars. Significant additional funds came from the Departent of Finance working closely with the Federal Department of Transport to ensure supports for the North’s airline industry, which many of you rely on.
What did all that look like: first, with the help of the federal government, the Northern Business Relief Fund was almost immediately expanded to address the specific needs of our territory’s tourism businesses and the Departent of Finance worked with the Federal Department of Transport to ensure supports for the North’s airline industry, which many of you rely on. A quick aside, I know there are still challenges in the air industry that are disproportionately affecting rural and remote regions. This was also a topic at the meeting of the CCTM and one on which I am still advocating to the Federal government and industry.
As the pandemic continued, ITI staff worked internally, and with partners like the BDIC and our Community Futures Organizations, to adjust the terms and capacities of our programs and services to meet challenges as we met them. In addition to direct funding supports, our government waived tourism insurance requirements and licensing fees as another means of short-term relief.
Two key programs - the Pandemic Relief Extension Program (or PREP) for tourism operators, and the Supplement for Tourism Accommodation Relief (or STAR) Program for accommodation providers - were introduced to help you cover costs, maintain staff and keep infrastructure and investments intact. Under the Growth and Recovery by Investing in Tourism (or GRIT) Fund, many of you upgraded and pivoted your operations and services. Three million dollars was invested under GRIT in tourism initiatives across the territory.
Those three programs would not have been successful without the tourism industry making such positive and thoughtful use of them.
Incredibly, the number of TOLs in the NWT has dropped by only 2 licenses since 2019.
Together, we have worked and invested with focus and dedication to ensure that the NWT tourism industry could make it to the point where we are today – ready to get back to doing what we each do best and, I believe, take advantage of the renewed focus on tourism, and in particular, to opportunities in tourism that we have in abundance, to not only recovery but thrive.
In coming weeks, we will once-again be calling for funding applications under the Tourism Product Diversification and Marketing Program as well as for the Community Tourism Infrastructure Contribution.
At your meeting, ITI’s Idea Café is back by popular demand. If you have an idea about how to develop tourism in your community, expand your existing business or tackle a tourism infrastructure project and you’re wondering how or if ITI can play a role in making it happen, stop in and sit down with one of the tourism staff that will be on hand.
Tomorrow will mark a return to in-person training with ITI sponsored presentations.
These familiar elements of your annual event are all part of the proven programs, services and supports that once enabled the NWT tourism industry to reach record highs before COVID. In the year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NWT tourism industry realized a record 120 thousand visitors to the NWT who contributed more than $210 million to our economy. And the trend was going up.
I want us to be back on that upward curve. But more than that, I want the NWT to be the destinate of choice for Indigenous tourism, for sustainable tourism and for the next potential trend, regenerative tourism. For anyone unfamiliar, that is tourism that has a positive impact and leaves its host location even better than it was. I think this is what we already do. So let’s show the world how who we are and how we do that.