Selling Nunavut
Tourism operators heading down trail of privatization

by Bruce Valpy
Northern News Services

NNSL (NOV 25/96) - After trying four names over the speaker phone, Nunavut Tourism president Paul Landry finally shouted: "Can anyone in Pangnirtung hear me?"

A roomful of people in the Siniktarvik Hotel strained to listen to the conference call.

Eventually a voice came from 1,200 kilometres north: "Ya, hear you."

That was how the tourism industry group conducted its annual general meeting in Rankin Inlet Nov. 15 to 18.

When the territorial government was running the tourism show, those people on the phones in Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, and Pangnirtung might have been flown in, fed and bedded at a hundred-plus dollars a night. Things have changed. A year old, Nunavut Tourism's 97 outfitters and lodge owners are organizing themselves to take over the tourism game from government, starting with marketing.

It's considered a classic act of devolution, not to a hamlet but to a business community. The same process, not quite as advanced, is going on in the Western Arctic. Depending on Nunavut Tourism's success, they will take over more from government in coming years.

But it isn't all fun and games. President Landry, for one, is as grim as any hamlet mayor when talking budgets.

While program dollars were transferred from government coffers, person years and operations and maintenance money weren't.

"Doing more with less is a nice saying but certainly we can't do more," he explained diplomatically. "Not sure we can do as much in 1997 as 1996."

Landry and his board of 11 volunteers are hoping to set the stage for growth. They're also all business, keeping track of their time and attaching a dollar figure, showing what a board is worth. The approximately 37 operators paid their own way to Rankin for the AGM. The only frills are for the tourists.

"We must create Nunavut as a destination -- fresh air, tundra, wildlife," Landry said. "Then we get product specific -- fishing, hunting."

Surviving on a starvation budget is one challenge. Creating a clear message and putting precious cash out to spread it around the world has its own special risks.

At the back of the Siniktarvik conference room stood a three-metre-high display of suggested marketing images. Landry looked over his shoulder while outfitter and cross-cultural guide Caroline Anawak pointed out mountain scenes, snow and polar bear portraits that might threaten the older tourist, a growing market. They might worry about breaking a hip, she said.

"You need to think like the refrigerator ads in the 50s," Anawak suggested to the board. "Let's use pictures of the type of people we want coming up here."

Small operator Steve Inukshuk, one year in the business in Chesterfield Inlet, had similar thoughts. "Our marketing is all off track," he said. "Got to promote so tourists who come here know what to expect. Should promote summer shots. We have beluga whales, caribou."

These comments carried weight with a board hungry for direction, and image is one of the issues that will have to be resolved before spending too many more of those marketing dollars.

Landry is optimistic the problems of the past can be corrected. There were too many different regional and departmental approaches to selling tourism coming out of the territorial government.

"Regional divisions have no meaning for the client," said Landry. "They want to look at the quality of the package."

Politics may not sell but Inuit lifestyle does. A new member on the board, Meeka Mike, based in Iqaluit, works with a number of small unilingual tourism operators in Baffin.

They, not the large lodge owners, are closest to the Inuit culture and they come with their own problems. She continually raised the issue of language at the weekend meeting, reminding the members of the need for syllabic translation of motions and bylaws and especially the bureaucratic forms and regulations.

"It's hard for them," Meeka said. "They get discouraged."

By meeting's end, there was general agreement that developing vacation and tour packages involving different operators and different Nunavut experiences was the best way to go.

Landry also wants to explore established markets that may be new to the North, like birdwatchers, Northern Lights worshippers, the 645,000 British tourists crossing the ocean each year, Americans and Europeans. And he wants to sell winter.

"... with dogs and snowmobiling. Darkness is fascinating, where the moon never sets. We take people out into the wilderness and they can't believe it."