Northern tourism need open borders to bring ‘ghost town’ back to life, says Wapusk Adventures owner

·3 min read

David Daley says he has watched over the last year as the pandemic has devastated his business and his mental health, and turned his home community of Churchill into a “ghost town.”

“Mentally I’m just done,” Wapusk Adventures long-time owner David Daley said on Thursday morning from his home in Churchill. “We’re in trouble, we are in real financial trouble like anyone else in business up here.

“Imagine if someone said to you ‘go home and you are not going to get a paycheque for 16 months, and you’re going to have to borrow your way out of it.”

As owner of Wapusk Adventures, Daley said he offers wilderness activities and experiences year-round like dog sledding, snowshoeing, Northern Lights watching, and electric biking, and he said his clients come from around the globe.

Along with these experiences, Daley said he also offers Indigenous cultural experiences, and that is a big part of what the business tries to do.

“Indigenous tourism is an experience,” he said. “It’s a cultural experience, we talk about our connection with the animals and our connection to the land, and I’ve seen people leave here affected by what they have learned, and tell me it has changed their perspective.

“It’s a beautiful thing to share, because Indigenous culture is all about sharing.”

But over the last 16 months Daley said the pandemic has brought his business to an almost complete standstill, as he said he typically brings in more than $250,000 a year, but only brought about $10,000 in the last year.

“The last 16 months have been absolutely horrible, and people have to realize having all these sled dogs, my expenses have not stopped,” he said. “A tour company can park the van or cancel the insurance, but you can’t stop taking care of the animals, and they are eating about $4,000 worth of food every two months.”

Daley said he estimates his overhead costs per month sit at around $6,000, even when he is shut down.

And even with health restrictions being loosened in Manitoba this week, Daley said he needs to see a lot from all levels of government if he and others in the industry are going to survive.

“First of all and most importantly we need the borders open,” Daley said. “It’s an international market, we rely on the borders being open and on the tour companies bringing people here.”

Daley also wants people to know that he and many other business owners in this province have had to borrow massive amounts of money just to keep from closing their doors for good.

“We are out of money, I even put a donate button on my Facebook page,” he said.

And as business has cratered for Daley, he said he has also watched his usually vibrant hometown of Churchill transform into a place he can barely recognize anymore.

“It’s a ghost town, that’s the only way to describe it,” he said. “It’s sad.”

But despite all he’s been through in the last 16 months, Daley said he has never and will never consider shutting his doors.

“That won’t happen, that will never happen, I’ll never pack it in,” he said.

“I’ll go down kicking and screaming.”

A 2017 study showed that at least 1,875 Indigenous businesses participate in Canada’s Indigenous tourism sector, with more than 39,000 people working in the sector’s associated industries. The combined direct economic footprint in 2017 of the industry was estimated to exceed $1.7 billion.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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