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Spreading wealth

Tour company a multi-million dollar business

Maria Canton and Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jan 31/01) - The aurora borealis is lighting up much more than the Northern night, says the man who pioneered the Northern lights tourism product.

Bill Tait, owner of Raven Tours, said his company pulls $8-million into the Yellowknife economy each year.

Combined with the other aurora viewing tour companies, the natural phenomenon generates about $11 million annually for the city's economy.

Raven Tours, which has been operating for 11 years, caters to a Japanese market fascinated by the mysterious Northern Lights.

"Aggressive marketing has paid off for us," Tait said.

Last Friday, about 50 businesspeople spent an evening at Tait's aurora viewing facility on Prelude Lake.

"Yellowknife is now the biggest attraction for the Japanese for winter tourism, more than Banff and Jasper," he said.

Raven Tours expects 8,000 visitors this aurora season, from mid-November to mid-April.

On any given night, up to 500 clients are being shuttled to Prelude where four domes and several cabins keep every one warm until an "aurora watcher" calls them out to view an aurora.

Most Japanese make the 20-hour return flight to stay only three days. Because Yellowknife is situated almost directly underneath the heart of the aurora oval they have a 90 per cent chance of seeing the coloured lights.

"We are blessed with almost perfect conditions and as we grow we are trying to spread the business around to everyone," said Tait, who has been to Japan 28 times.

Tait has more than 75 staff members many of whom are Japanese or speak Japanese. Raven Tours spreads business to about 120 other Yellowknife establishments.

"Our success comes from working with local suppliers," said Tait.

One example is Cardinal Coach Lines which provides bus services to Raven Tours. By providing transportation services, Cardinal is putting employees and its equipment to work, and it means Raven Tours doesn't have to buy and maintain a fleet of buses.

"It's the best of both worlds," said Troy Bowden, Cardinal regional manager.

"For most of the staff, school bus work is part-time, but because of Raven Tours, (drivers) end up with full-time hours," he said.