Auroraing success
Raven Tours owner Tait talks aurora tourism at Edmonton event

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

NNSL (Dec 04/98) - Despite the scuttlebutt about what goes on under the curtain of Northern Lights, Japanese tourists do not travel North to procreate, says Bill Tait, whose company specializes in aurora borealis tours.

It is a "myth started by U.S. television," Raven Tours president Tait told a packed session at this week's Meet the North, Build a Vision conference in Edmonton.

It just goes to show how "off track" things can get, he said, while he described how his business developed and provided thoughts on tourism opportunities.

Raven Tours has been very successful in bringing Japanese tourists to Yellowknife for aurora viewing.

"It's hard to imagine the aurora and the Japanese culture," Tait, who created the Aurora tour product a decade ago, said.

Yellowknife is dark and cold in winter and yet hundreds of people from Japan spend big bucks to see the lights dance across the Northern sky.

Tait said for many of his clients (most are young female office workers), seeing the Northern Lights is almost a spiritual experience.

As a tourism operator, he said he has to be cognizant that for some of his clients, an Aurora tour is the highlight of their lives.

"(Many) people from Japan have never walked in snow."

When Tait was first approached several years ago about offering aurora tours for Japanese tourists, he recalls he also fielded a New Yorker's suggestion that Yellowknife would be a great spot for a hypnotist conference. Tait was skeptical about both.

Maybe blimps flying from Iqaluit to Pangnirtung are not such a crazy idea, he said.

But, adds Tait, Raven Tour's success did not come until the fifth or sixth year of marketing and developing and refining the product. The product includes a list of things Northerners do. That list includes marshmallow roasting and even snow-sliding on sealskins.

"Now, we are looking at the Taiwanese market," Tait told the conference.

Drawing Japanese tourists to Yellowknife has meant adapting the Far East style of business and the lifestyle of people from there.

He grows bonsai trees in his office and his staff call him ojisan (the old man).

"They (the Japanese) want sprint tours all through the packages. Japanese are time specific."

When it comes to offering a product to the Japanese, being five minutes late is not good and 10 minutes late is a "disaster," he said.

When developing the Aurora product, he said he got complaints from tourists who got a nine-minute dog sled ride when others got 12 minutes. As the day went on, the dogs slowed, resulting in longer rides.

Tait believes to improve tourism, the industry must market Canada first.

As for competition, Finland and Alaska are aggressively developing Aurora products, Tait said. Banff is marketing to Brazil's Japanese. He also said the Japanese market reacted well to the GNWT endorsing Raven Tours' product.

He also believes the North will have to tastefully deal with what is good aboriginal tourism and what is not.

Political boundaries are another problem, he said. Tait believes borders limit the development of regions or countries as destinations.

"We have to look at partnerships."

Several others at the tourism session agreed. Among them Yukon Tourism marketing director Joe Bennett.

For too long the North's jurisdictions have been going it alone on tourism, Bennett said.

"We need to be creative together. We've still got to learn (how) to motivate Canadians to come North."

Tanya Van Valkenberg of Inuvik suggested a tourism conference be held in Inuvik.