Canada relaxes border rules, but not enough for the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad

Two green-and-yellow train engines with White Pass markings in front of an old-timey station for tourists
A White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad train in Skagway in 2017. (Emily Files/KHNS)

An easing of restrictions at the border between Skagway and Yukon Territory will make it possible for tour companies to run cross-border excursions this summer. That’s good news for many Skagway tour operators that take cruise ship passengers into Canada.

But Skagway’s largest tour outfit, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, says its trains won’t cross the border despite relaxed testing rules and faster processing times. On April 5, the railway notified its partners that it wouldn’t be operating in Canada this season.

White Pass executive Tyler Rose says there were a number of reasons why.

“We just couldn’t find a workable solution to it,” he said. “It was logistics, some restrictions. The uncertainty around wait times — it just wasn’t possible for us to provide the consistent, high-quality service without delays. And we thought it would create a significant disruption to the passenger experience.”

Yukon’s Minister of Economic Development Ranj Pillai says his team is disappointed in White Pass’s decision.

“We essentially went through a series of problem-solving on border issues and ensuring that we would have the ability for White Pass to come back and not have delays. And you know, we solved those issues. So yeah, this week was it was very tough to get that news,” Pillai said.

The Yukon government and Yukon businesses aren’t the only ones affected. White Pass partners with several Skagway-based companies to do combination tours that involve a train ride and other excursions like kayaking, bus rides or bike tours.

Sockeye Cycle owner Dustin Craney says he’s been booking tours based on the idea that the train would run to Fraser B.C., where his company would meet passengers for a bike tour on the Klondike Highway. Now he has to issue about $10,000 in refunds.

“I didn’t think we had kind of any kind of guarantee from them. But we definitely had been booking tours. And I think all the indications from both the kind of the cruise line partners from White Pass and from folks locally was that it seemed like things were coming together, depending on the Canada border situation,” Craney said.

But the work done by the Yukon government to relax border restrictions has paved the way for other Skagway-based tour companies to resume their trips up the Klondike Highway to Yukon communities like Carcross. Fears over long delays at the border kept some companies in limbo wondering if they’d be able to operate at all after two years of pandemic-related shutdowns.

Now some tour companies, including Chilkoot Charters and Holland America Princess, plan to resume bus tours into Canada.

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata says he was very concerned that thousands of cruise ship passengers arriving in Skagway would end up creating bottlenecks at local establishments and an overcrowded downtown due to border restrictions.

“As the season progresses, if more and more of the Yukon tour operators, the independents, can come online and offer their products to tourists, I think that’s going to alleviate that bottleneck pressure and offer a really awesome opportunity for the independent tour operators to get back on their feet financially,” Cremata said.

Pillai says a completed ArriveCan app will still be required to cross the border. However, passengers that completed the app before boarding their cruise ship won’t have to update it. He also says a printout of the final QR code from the app will be accepted at the Fraser border, as will a screenshot of that page saved on a smartphone.

Skagway’s cruise season starts on April 26. But things are expected to get busy when four large cruise ships arrive in town on May 17.

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