For more than three decades, the ecotourism company John Gunter now runs has been offering guided group tours in northern Manitoba to a mainly international clientele looking to experience the majesty of beluga whales or venture on a polar bear expedition.
But now, that international market has been lost because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.
That’s left Gunter’s company, Frontiers North Adventures, and other ecotourism operators in the north redirecting their marketing strategy to entice Manitobans and Western Canadians to spend their vacation at home — or closer to it — by visiting Churchill, 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
“I have been surprised by the number of people inquiring from Manitoba and the West, saying, ‘We have been talking about travelling to Churchill for years. We are going to do it this summer,'” said Gunter.
Pre-COVID, Gunter — Frontier North’s president and CEO — says about 75 to 85 per cent of the company’s tourists came from outside Canada.
To try to lure tourists from closer to home, Frontiers North Adventures has created a landing page on its website featuring excursions targeted to Manitobans themselves, saying “this is the year to come to Churchill” for “made-in-Manitoba adventure.”
Ads promoting the “Come to Churchill” landing page have been running since last week.
Gunter says the new page offers tips on how Manitobans who may have cancelled trips elsewhere can plan out a family vacation to the province’s north.
The page includes links to not only Frontiers North’s offerings, but also other companies that offer experiences like beluga-viewing excursions, and summer and winter dog-sledding activities, along with links to Via Rail packages to get to Churchill.
“This is really an opportunity to help rise the tide for the whole community of Churchill — to try and make the most of the summer tour season even though there are no foreign visits,” said Gunter, adding the marketing campaign is starting to pay off.
‘Safe place to visit’ during pandemic
Dwight Allen, the manager of Sea North Tours in Churchill, says he was happy to get on board with the new ad campaign.
“People may be surprised by what they see here. I welcome Canadian travellers to see the wonders of the north. They may do repeat vacations once they experience the magic,” said Allen, whose company offers beluga-watching tours.
Pre-COVID, Allen says 60 per cent of his customers were American.
With Phase 3 of Manitoba’s pandemic reopening plan underway — which allows Manitobans and Western Canadians to travel to northern Manitoba without having to self-isolate when they arrive — “bookings are starting to come in,” he said.
“And this is a safe place to visit. There are zero COVID cases here.”
Travel Manitoba has a campaign underway to bring southern Manitobans and Western Canadians to the province’s north, which previously saw a tourism hit in 2017 and 2018, when the rail line to Churchill was washed out.
New ads encouraging visitors to “find your heart in Manitoba” are running on radio, social media, outdoor boards and television.
“We will doing more to promote Churchill later this summer,” said Linda Whitfield, Travel Manitoba’s vice-president of marketing.
Both Allen and Gunter say they will continue to market to Canadians and beyond once borders fully open. For now, they are both excited to welcome visitors from other parts of their home province.
“More Manitobans will have the opportunity to experience Churchill. We are so excited to welcome and host them. They will get a chance to see what an amazing destination it is, right in our own backyard,” said Gunter.
“Who knows,” said Allen. “We may be tapping into a whole new market.”
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