June 25, 2017

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Delight amid the despair

High-end tour operators whose customers fly to Churchill expect best year on record while town scrambles to cope with loss of rail line

<p>The opportunity to see Polar bears up close in their natural habitat has long been a draw for tourists to the town of Churchill</p>

TRAVEL MANITOBA

The opportunity to see Polar bears up close in their natural habitat has long been a draw for tourists to the town of Churchill

It’s the tale of two Churchills.

While the town of 900 is dealing with the hard reality that it’s now cut off from all ground transportation with apparently no resolution in sight, the thriving tourism industry may well enjoy its best-ever year.

The town on the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba has been rendered a fly-in community after the rail line from north of Gillam was flooded out to such a degree earlier this spring that it will take weeks just to figure out the extent of the damage.

The damaged track and bridges won’t be repaired until next spring, at the earliest, the railway’s owner says.

Resilient Churchill residents have faced these kinds of challenges in the past — in 2014 a derailment cut off rail service for close to eight weeks. But this time calamity struck just as a concerted promotion campaign touting Churchill’s exotic brand of wildlife and eco-tourism is starting to hit paydirt.

That’s why some in the community cringe when they hear Wally Daudrich, owner of Churchill’s Lazy Bear Expeditions, say he has "train-proofed" his business.

"The good-news story out of all this confusion in Churchill is that it is really a banner year for sales," Daudrich says.

And it appears that it is more than just the eternal optimism of one entrepreneur.

"The big irony is tourism to Churchill is going off like gangbusters," says John Gunter, president of Frontiers North Adventures, the oldest and largest of Churchill’s tourism service providers.

But Gunter is quick to point out the whole town is in it together and is scrambling to deal with the reality of no Via Rail service. That means delays and more expensive air deliveries of food and fuels, as well as the likelihood that some families who might traditionally head south in the summer might not be able to afford to travel.

"We do have supply-side logistics challenges getting supplies to Churchill, but on the sales side we anticipate 2017 will be our busiest year ever for guest arrivals," he says.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The rail loss remains devastating, says Colin Ferguson, CEO of Travel Manitoba. “Tourism is only a part of the story.”</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The rail loss remains devastating, says Colin Ferguson, CEO of Travel Manitoba. “Tourism is only a part of the story.”

A sophisticated adventure-travel industry has been built around the area’s global recognition as the polar bear capital of the world. Thanks to a growing appreciation of the unique northern Manitoba setting and abundance of wildlife — particularly polar bears and beluga whales — international nature travellers have taken notice.

In the last handful of years, beluga watching in the summer and northern lights excursions in the dead of winter have added several months onto the six- to eight-week polar bear-watching season in October and November.

"Churchill has become a really unique and key opportunity for the international tourism market," says Colin Ferguson, CEO of Travel Manitoba. "It is one of the reasons Manitoba has been successful from a tourism perspective. It’s very important to us."

In 2015-16, tourism contributed $1.6 billion to the provincial economy, up three per cent from the previous year. No one seems to have a solid handle on the total value of the industry in Churchill, but Ferguson said the newly created beluga-watching business is already in the $10-million to $15-million range annually.

But irrespective of the total value of the market, Churchill has become a star international attraction for the province, indeed for the country. It has become a favourite for the Destination Canada international tourism marketing agency, with four listings in its 199 Canadian Signature Experiences.

"Destination Canada’s approach to marketing has not changed in light of the recent events," says Emma Slieker, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver-based agency. "We’re continuing to promote Churchill as a premier tourist destination."

And Winnipeg has a vested interest in seeing travel to Churchill continue, because every one of those travellers spends time in the city.

"There are lots who take the train to Churchill, but the majority do fly," says Karen Goosen, director of market development at Tourism Winnipeg. "As the gateway to the North, we enjoy all the visitations... the extra overnights with lots of people doing pre- or post-visit city activities before or after their trip."

<p>Now that the tourism season is longer and more diversified there is an added focus on the northern lights and watching beluga whales.</p>

TRAVEL MANITOBA

Now that the tourism season is longer and more diversified there is an added focus on the northern lights and watching beluga whales.

And these are not budget travellers. The big tour companies, such as Frontiers North Adventures, Natural Habitat Adventures and Lazy Bear Expeditions, offer group rates that can exceed $10,000 per person for six or seven days, depending on the specialized itinerary.

But Travel Manitoba’s Ferguson knows only too well that no matter how prepared the tour operators are and how enthusiastic the travellers are, rail service is crucial to the health of the region and the industry’s continued success.

"While it is important that tourists continue coming to Churchill this summer and fall, and that there will be transportation options allowing that to happen, the loss of the rail line is devastating to those communities who rely on the service for goods and supplies," he says. "In other words, tourism is only a part of the story."

And all hands are on deck to ensure travellers get to their destination this year. Gary Bell, president of Calm Air, says the airline has added twice-weekly Thompson-to-Churchill flights in addition to its normal twice-daily 737 service from Winnipeg to Churchill, and has made it clear the company will do whatever is necessary to help the community cope.

"The Churchill tourism business is very important to Calm Air," he says, explaining that it gives the airline international exposure and beefs up traffic in three distinct travel seasons.

Via Rail, which continues to provide service twice a week from Winnipeg to Thompson and Gillam (plus an additional train from The Pas to Gillam) is contacting all pre-booked rail customers to provide full refunds and/or assistance to arrange alternative travel.

Even in the heat of discussions this week with government officials for assistance in getting fuel and supplies to the town, Churchill Mayor Mike Spence made a point of mentioning the travel industry.

"Tourism is huge," he said. "It’s our bread and butter. What’s important to note is that it’s still up and running.

"We are open for business."

<p>Beluga whale watching is a growing aspect of tourism in Churchill</p>

TRAVEL MANITOBA

Beluga whale watching is a growing aspect of tourism in Churchill

Earlier this week, Travel Manitoba responded to the situation by launching an information blitz announcing the "Polar bear capital of the world still open for business," suggesting travellers can enjoy a northern rail trip to Thompson before flying to Churchill, or they can take direct flights out of Winnipeg. It assures visitors that Calm Air has added freight flights to ensure local businesses are stocked with food and supplies.

Previously, polar bears, northern lights and kayaking with beluga whales had starring roles in Travel Manitoba’s Canada’s Heart Beats ad campaign.

Despite the efforts of both industry and government, uncertainty among travellers because of the rail situation has led to some trip cancellations. Gunter says staffing levels at the Tundra Inn have been trimmed. Ben Bressler, the founder and president of Boulder, Col.-based Natural Habitat Adventures, says the expected increases in the cost of groceries and supplies will eventually drive up tour prices and lead some travellers elsewhere.

Natural Habitat has been selling expensive tour packages to Churchill since the 1980s. Bressler, whose top-drawer tour business is associated with the the World Wildlife Federation, said Churchill is a huge part of his company’s business that takes travellers to Africa, the Galapagos Islands and several other exotic spots around the world.

He’s optimistic about the new beluga-watching market that doubled in size last year alone.

"We’ve maxed out our polar bear business, but there is a real opportunity for Churchill during the summer season for the belugas and (during the winter months for) the northern lights," he says. "We have been putting a load of resources toward marketing these key seasons and it has been going great."

Unlike Frontiers North and Lazy Bear, whose guests exclusively fly to Churchill, the rail experience is a key element in Natural Habitat’s tours.

"The Town of Churchill could potentially end up a little behind the eight-ball if that train does not start up," he says.

<p>Tourism Manitoba featured the northern lights in promotional ads for Churchill</p>

TRAVEL MANITOBA

Tourism Manitoba featured the northern lights in promotional ads for Churchill

Omnitrax, the company that owns and operates the rail line and Port of Churchill, has been a reluctant operator for some time and has grown increasingly vocal about its desire to leave the market, claiming the Hudson Bay Railway is an ongoing money-loser.

The overland flooding damage has come after more than a year of contentious operation that has seen the Denver-based operation cut its freight service and virtually close the port, Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean.

Via Rail, which is legally obliged to continue operating passenger service from Winnipeg to Churchill, has been an enthusiastic partner in the development of of the town’s tourism trade even though it’s a money-losing run. Losses have declined from 88.7 per cent in 2014 to 82.5 per cent in 2016 with revenue of $3.73 million on costs of $21.3 million.

Michael Woelcke, the company’s general manager of regional services in Winnipeg, says Via has been keen to see the renewed interest in Churchill and has been working with industry stakeholders to improve the service by bringing back the dome car and adding a chef.

"Via Rail’s business on the Winnipeg-Churchill line has grown significantly in the last two to three years," Woelcke says. "This is a setback. Unfortunately what has happened is well beyond our control. It is an act of God, as they say."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Martin Cash.

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