Adventure company expands to launch aurora tour out of Calgary

Growing interest in viewing northern lights coincides with the current solar cycle’s expected peak in 2024.

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A growing interest in the northern lights and Calgary’s popularity with international tourists has led an adventure tour company to expand its offerings, including a new direct aurora tour from the city.

Frontiers North Adventures CEO John Gunter thinks access to aurora watchers, who also enjoy Rocky Mountain winter sports, equals growth possibilities for his family-run Manitoba-based business.

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“We think it’s got great potential,” says Gunter, who on March 9 launched his company’s inaugural northern lights tour with a direct flight from Calgary to Churchill in northern Manitoba, on Summit Air.

With fall polar bear viewing season in Churchill at capacity and a fleet of “Tundra Buggies” (custom-built all-terrain vehicles used for photographing and studying polar bears) sitting idle in winter, the opportunity was there for Frontiers North to expand its aurora borealis tour offerings.

Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba
Churchill, Manitoba is under the aurora oval — an area that provides a higher probability of seeing northern lights. Photo taken during Frontiers North Adventures’ inaugural direct Calgary-Churchill (Manitoba) aurora tour in March 2024. Photo by Carol Patterson

Travel firm hopes to provide ‘additional Iconic Canadian experience’

Churchill — with a population of approximately 900 people, 4,000 belugas and 1,000 polar bears — is under the aurora oval and on the coastline of a frozen ocean. With its semi-arid winter climate, it’s well situated for seeing northern lights.

Frontiers North offered 14 multi-day northern lights tours during the 2023-24 winter. Picking Calgary as the location for its first expansion outside its traditional departure point of Winnipeg was based primarily upon two factors.

The company had some experience with customized Calgary trips to see polar bears, so its staff knew a charter link from the city was logistically possible. Frontiers North believed a charter with flying times under three hours from Calgary to Churchill could save their customers time, a commodity highly prized by their guests.

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“If we can save our guests a day’s travel on either end of their trip by going directly from Calgary to Churchill, we think there is value in that,” Gunter says.

Gunter also saw opportunities to reach international tourists visiting Banff National Park.

“We thought of leveraging the critical mass of foreign leisure travellers already in Alberta for the winter wonderland product,” Gunter says. “We can provide an additional iconic Canadian experience on the same trip.”

Frontiers North dabbled in northern lights tours for years, many of them small-scale trips to Nunavut, but then the company returned to where the business started.

“We’ve got a lot of assets and infrastructure in Churchill that is required for a relatively short polar bear tour during autumn and beluga whale tour season in summer,” says Gunter, pointing to his desire to enhance the economic and social opportunities for Churchill. Frontiers North Adventures owns a fleet of 12 touring Tundra Buggies, The Tundra Buggy Lodge, one hotel, two restaurants and a gift shop.

Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba
A “Tundra Buggy” used by Frontiers North Adventures. Photo by Carol Patterson

Northern lights more likely visible with expected peak of solar cycle

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“We realized we could take the energy we were spending in Nunavut territory and put it into Churchill and have a better return for our organization,” says Gunter. “Our strong suit, historically, has been polar bear viewing. We’ve been doing northern lights tours since the early 2000s, but we never put a lot of weight behind it. In 2015, we really shifted.”

A new idea also occurred when Frontiers North partnered with an architect and chef from Winnipeg to try the concept of food travel. Raw:churchill, a culinary and adventure experience held at Prince of Wales Fort in March 2016, sold out.

“We pioneered this idea to dine beneath the northern lights,” says Gunter. “And this is how we help Churchill step out from behind the shadow of a polar bear.”

With 2024 expected to bring the peak of an 11-year solar cycle and better aurora borealis visibility, Expedia’s data shows northern lights are the most sought-after experience globally this year.

“This year’s hot spots are looking a whole lot cooler with the rise of northern lights tourism, spurred by reports that the astronomical phenomenon will be extraordinarily visible in 2024,” Expedia said in a news release earlier this year.

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Churchill is gaining attention as a Canadian northern lights destination. Expedia recorded a 173 per cent increase in Churchill hotel searches from 2022 to 2023, compared to Whitehorse with a 20 per cent increase and Yellowknife with an 18 per cent increase. Expedia’s top 10 trending northern lights locations worldwide, based on year-over-year search growth from 2022 to 2023, ranked Churchill second behind Lapland, Finland, and ahead of Alta, Norway.

Frontiers North Adventures hopes to benefit from this interest.

“All of our guests in Churchill this past season saw northern lights. It doesn’t mean that it happened every night. If you are in town for three or four nights it means that you saw northern lights on your trip (at some time). We think that’s a good track record,” Gunter says.

On whether there will be expanded access from Calgary, Gunter is hopeful but cautious.

“We’re going to start with one trip and make sure that’s profitable, and then hopefully add a second one. These things take time. We incur a lot of losses developing a new product like this and it’s the ability to stick with it, believing in the product, ” Gunter says. “We’re going to keep putting in the work.”

Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba
Summit Air boards Frontiers North Adventures inaugural charter flight from YYC for Northern Lights viewing. Photo by Carol Patterson
Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba
2024 is the peak of an 11-year solar cycle with increased chances of seeing northern lights. Photo taken during Frontiers North Adventures’ inaugural Calgary-Churchill (Manitoba) direct northern lights tour in March 2024. cal

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