Given that 80 per cent of the Yukon is wilderness, it stands to reason that its capital, Whitehorse, is aptly dubbed the “Wilderness City.” But while, on the ground, moose outnumber people two to one, the wildest part of northern Canada may well be its skies, thanks to the famed Aurora Borealis. Whitehorse and Yellowknife, in neighbouring Northwest Territories, are lauded as two of the best places in the world to watch the Northern Lights. As such, tens of thousands make the trip to the Northwest Territories solely for the purpose of seeing the spectacle — the 2013/2014 winter tourism season saw an increase of almost 40 per cent over the previous year.
But how have these towns managed to attract as many tourists as they have citizens when Greenland, Norway and Finland seem to have cornered the Northern Lights luxury market?
Cathie Bolstad, executive director of Northwest Territories Tourism, explains that the recent rise in numbers to Northern Canada is due to work behind the scenes. In 2010 Canada received approved destination status from China, and the Northwest Territories, in collaboration with Destination Canada, immediately began to invest to attract visitors to the area. The Northwest Territories government has also invested in growing these markets with trade missions and local tourism operators are investing marketing dollars in those countries.
“From both Japan and China, there are more flights coming into Vancouver and Calgary than there were a few years ago and we have seen an increase in flights and flight sizes connecting these passengers into the Northwest Territories,” Bolstad says. She also points to the power of social media making the destination appear more accessible as visitors tweet and post their experiences.
The most recent government data from the Northwest Territories show nearly 22,000 people travelled there to view the Aurora Borealis (winter 2013/2014). A tenth came from Canada, but more than half (14,520) came from Japan with China, Korea, the U.S. and Europe rounding out visitors’ origins. This surge in interest is encouraging operators to step up their offerings — and hire multilingual staff.
“It can be challenging to provide the required language services, but our company committed years ago to provide a solid set of customer service, which includes guiding in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean and Chinese,” says Felix Geithner, owner of Whitehorse’s Arctic Range Adventure, which offers several tours to see the Aurora Borealis.
And if the lights are out or covered by clouds? Most operators have fine print that states a light show isn’t guaranteed (if they do guarantee it, think twice about using their services). Backup plans come in various worthy forms. Geithner explains: “We have an unbounded range of activities and sights for anyone who loves breathtaking landscapes and unforgettable experiences.”
In other words, tourists may come for the Northern Lights, but they’ll be almost as dazzled by dog sledding, snowmobiling, stunning wildlife and hot springs.