The lean times may be over for Manitoba's polar bear tour operators.

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This article was published 10/6/2013 (3099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The tundra buggy takes visitors out for a day of polar bear viewing, near Churchill

ROBERT TAYLOR / POSTMEDIA NEWS ARCHIVES

The tundra buggy takes visitors out for a day of polar bear viewing, near Churchill

The lean times may be over for Manitoba's polar bear tour operators.

Tour bookings went into the deep-freeze after the global economy tanked in 2008, plunging more than 40 per cent over the next four years for one of the province's oldest operators -- Winnipeg-based Frontiers North Adventures.

"But we believe... we've finally turned the corner," Frontiers CEO Merv Gunter said in an interview Monday, noting bookings are up 20 to 25 per cent this year for both its summer beluga whale tours and its fall polar bear jaunts out of Churchill.

He said the increased demand is coming from its traditional markets, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.

"China is also picking up, and that really adds a lot of value for us."

Gunter said all the indicators point to this being the start of a long-term recovery.

"People who have Churchill high on their bucket list are starting to come, and we believe that will continue," he added. "And Australia is a really strong market for us and has been for years."

Gunter was one of about 90 local industry representatives who attended a half-day town hall meeting Monday in Winnipeg to hear what national organizations such as the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) are doing to help lure more tourists to Canada. The town hall session was part of Tourism Week activities planned for this week.

Paul Nursey, CTC's vice-president of strategy and corporate communications, and TIAC president and CEO David Goldstein said the CTC has had to scale back its international marketing efforts this year in the wake of a 20 per cent cut in federal funding.

They said the CTC has opted to forgo marketing Canada in the United States this year and focus on attracting more visitors from other fast-growing markets such as Europe, China, India, Japan, Brazil and Australia.

"We've had some choices we've had to make," Nursey said. "But we can get through this. This is a tremendously resilient market."

Goldstein said with the U.S. economy finally showing signs of strengthening, one of TIAC's priorities is to convince the federal and provincial governments to boost funding next year for U.S.-specific marketing initiatives.

He said TIAC officials would like to see government and private-sector tourism organizations spend $500 million over the next five years on marketing Canada in the United States.

He said while the provinces and the private sector continue to market their products south of the border, "we still need some sort of national-brand co-ordination."

Travel Manitoba president and CEO Colin Ferguson said Travel Manitoba is also keen to take advantage of the U.S. economic recovery and the increase in tourism spending that should flow from that.

"They (Americans) love to come here to hunt and fish," Ferguson said, "and we are seeing a lot more of them coming back."

He said Travel Manitoba is working with the local tourism industry to develop a new provincial branding strategy which will be launched next spring.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca