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Canada's 'secret land' Yukon woos tourists

By Brandy Yanchyk
Whitehorse, Yukon

Dogsledding in Yukon
Yukon's wide open spaces are a big draw for visitors

As Vancouver gears up for its second stint as Olympic host with the Paralympics beginning on 12 March, one northern Canadian territory is hoping the lasting legacy of the Games will be a boost to tourism.

The government of Yukon spent just under 3m Canadian dollars (£1.9m) trying to educate people about their territory during the Winter Games, promoting it as a great place to travel, invest and do business.

"The people that go to the Olympics are our kind of people," says Sheila Dodd, who works in economic and tourism development for Whitehorse, Yukon's capital.

"They are adventurers. We know that demographic, that young person that loves skiing and snowboarding - they are for us."

map
We'd actually like more people to move here, we'd really love it
Sheila Dodd, Whitehorse

Ms Dodd says she realises Yukon is unknown to a lot of the world.

"We are a secret in the whole world I think because of our tiny population," she said.

"We'd actually like more people to move here, we'd really love it."

Yukon is about the size of Spain and has a total land mass of 483,610 sq km with a population of just over 32,000 people. Three-quarters of the people live in Whitehorse.

Yukon became famous for the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897-1898, when about 100,000 people flocked to the territory trying to find gold. Ms Dodd says those mining opportunities are still available in the Yukon today.

"Actually we take as much gold out of the Klondike today as we did during the Gold Rush, we just have bigger equipment."

Yukon's biggest employers include the government, mining, and knowledge-based industries, as well as tourism.

Tourist's story

Yukon's biggest tourist market after the US is Germany.

Mark Whalen in Yukon
Mark Whalen has been coming to the Yukon for 20 years

Americans often drive up from the US on their way to Alaska. Germans can fly direct to Whitehorse from Frankfurt every week in the summer, and then in the winter travellers can get there by going through Vancouver or Edmonton.

"Germans come here to camp. They are going down our rivers, they go to operate dogsleds," says Ms Dodd.

She adds that sometimes they don't want to leave and end up moving there and setting up their own tourism companies.

"They just love it because of the fact that there's nobody here. That is very appealing for Europeans: wide open spaces, no people," she says.

Mark Whalen is German and travels to Yukon for three weeks in the summer and in the winter, so he can camp and live in the territory's wilderness.

"In Germany it's so tight, so over-crowded with so many people and here is just the opposite of that," says Mr Whalen. "You are driving on the road for hours and hours and you meet nobody, and for most Germans it's unbelievable to do that."

Mr Whalen, 40, has been coming to Yukon for 20 years. He loves the vast country and challenging himself against nature's elements.

"When you see a grizzly bear coming out of the bush and you are on the water in a canoe and you don't know what's happening next, that's it," he says.

The access to wildlife in their own habitat is a massive draw for tourists like Mr Whalen.

"On my last trip, in two weeks I saw 28 moose. It was unbelievable. Every time I stopped to rest, a moose came out," he says.

"I normally see wolves, coyotes, grizzly bears... caribou a lot, elk. I saw a lynx two days ago right beside the cabin."

Leave no trace

But opening up Yukon's wilderness to tourists comes with its challenges.

Yukon landscape
Most people really think it's sort of like the Arctic and it's not. We are in the Boreal forest. A normal day in the winter is a sunny -10C
Rod Taylor, President of Tourism Industry Association of Yukon

"There are concerns because some people can make a mess," says tour guide Scott McDougall.

"That's why there are publications out there educating people on how not to disturb the wildlife and to have respect for the environment."

The Yukon government has strict rules that tourism operators like Mr McDougall must follow when it comes to waste disposal. They must also practise and preach the mentality of "leave no trace".

It all comes down to "common sense and respect" for the environment, says Mr McDougall.

"There are some concerns on some of the more popular routes. People need to just practise cleaning up after themselves.

"When they are done at a camp site, they need to make it look like no one has ever been there."

And chopping down trees is completely ruled out, "unless it's an emergency situation and they have lost their supplies," he says.

'Land of midnight sun'

The Yukon authorities are trying to dispel myths people may have about their territory.

Rod Taylor, who heads the Tourism Industry Association of Yukon, says most people think getting to Yukon will take "years and years", but he points out it is just two hours' flight from Vancouver.

"The second myth, of course, is the weather: most people really think it's sort of like the Arctic and it's not. We are in the Boreal forest. A normal day in the winter is a sunny -10C," he said.

The last myth is about daylight. The Yukon is known as "the land of the midnight sun", and many people think that the territory experiences 24-hour darkness in the winter because it is above the 60th parallel.

On the shortest day of the year, 21 December, Whitehorse sees about 5.5 hours of daylight.

In late June and early July, the town can have 21 hours of sunlight without complete darkness ever moving in.

During this time locals and tourists have even been known to be golfing at 11 o'clock at night.

Yukon's tourism officials hope the Vancouver Winter Olympics and Paralympics will provide a boost to other provinces and territories, not just British Columbia.

As with the Winter Games, performers from Yukon will be doing shows during the Paralympics, from 12-21 March.

Pierre Germain, Tourism Yukon's director, says they hope to see the results of their promotional activities in six to eight months.

"We did decide to invest in our people and expose our cultural performers to the world," he says.

While Yukon's wilderness is often the big draw for visitors, Mr Germain says, "it's the culture and people that keep them coming back".



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