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Fall polar bear tours rebound

U.S., England biggest markets

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Churchill polar-bear-tour operators, many of whom experienced a slump during the recession and post-recession years, report a good fall season with very strong bookings.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Churchill polar-bear-tour operators, many of whom experienced a slump during the recession and post-recession years, report a good fall season with very strong bookings.

Churchill's polar-bear-tour season experienced a bit of bull market this year.

A spokeswoman for the northern Manitoba town's second largest polar-bear-tour operator -- Great White Polar Bear Tours -- said its fall tours were fully booked, with tourists coming from as far away as China, Japan, India, England and Australia.

"We know that if we had more (tundra buggy) vehicles we could book them," Louella McPherson said in a recent interview. She said Great White, which is owned by Don and Marilyn Walkoski, has six of the 18 tundra-buggy permits issued for the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.

It was also a good season for the town's largest polar-bear-tour operator -- Frontiers North Adventures, which has the remaining 12 tundra-buggy permits.

John Gunter, president and CEO of the Winnipeg-based, family-owned company, said Frontiers North's fall bookings were up about 40 per cent from last year.

Gunter said it's taken about five years for Frontiers North to recover from the slowdown it experienced in the wake of the 2008-2009 global economic recession.

"We had a few stinker years after the (global) economy fell apart. But things are now looking good for us. I think the big story is that we're getting back on this upward-sloping trajectory."

Unlike Frontiers North, Great White never saw its business drop off during the recession and post-recession years.

"We weren't really affected by that at all," McPherson said, adding Great White routinely had to turn people away because it ran out of room on its tours.

Churchill's polar bear tours usually run from early October until late November. After that, most of the bears head out onto the ice pack in search of seals.

"This is the jumping point for them getting back onto the pack ice," McPherson added.

Unlike many of the smaller tour operators, Great White and Frontiers North have their own fleet of tundra buggies and tour buses. They also each own and operate their own lodge in the town.

McPherson said the United States and England are Great White's two biggest markets, accounting for 60 to 70 per cent of its bookings. But a growing number of visitors are also coming from emerging markets such as Australia, Japan, China and India.

Frontiers North draws most of its customers from the United States, England, Germany and Australia.

"France is also coming on and our Asian markets are doing very well," Gunter said. "China is also providing some favourable returns for us this year, and if we can crack it open that would be pretty big for us."

In addition to fall polar-bear tours, Frontiers North also offers northern lights tours from January to March through its Tundra Buggy Lodge in Churchill.

"We're really excited about that. That's doing very well...," Gunter said.

Great White also offers northern lights tours in January and February, and flora and fauna tours during the summer months.

Beluga whale tours are one of Churchill's biggest summer tourist attractions. The town's oldest beluga-whale-tour operator -- Sea North Tours Ltd. -- has seen slow but steady growth in its bookings in recent years, co-owner Dwight Allen said in an interview.

"The interest in swimming with the belugas is higher, and the interest in kayaking with the belugas is higher, as well," Allen said in an interview.

Allen, his wife, Louise Foubert, and their son, Remi Allen, bought the 30-year-old company about three years ago from its founder. They offer their beluga and floe-ice tours during July and August, as well as trips to Prince of Whales Fort.

"And if (polar) bears are in the area, we'll take people out to see the bears," Allen said.

He said about 55 per cent of Sea North's customers are Canadians, about 40 per cent are Americans, and the remaining five per cent are from Europe. But there was a Japanese film crew in Churchill this past summer filming a documentary on snorkeling with the whales, and he's hoping that will attract some Japanese tourists when it airs.

"That could have the potential to be a really good market for us," he added.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 B6

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