Things were looking up at the start of the summer tourist season in the small town of Revelstoke, in the interior of British Columbia, last year. COVID-19 restrictions are easing and demand for accommodation from restless travelers from Vancouver and Calgary was strong.
The numbers remained high even when thick, acrid smoke from nearby wildfires first swept through the city around mid-July, blanketing the city in a layer of ash.
But in early August word spread and tourists began to look elsewhere, such as Vancouver Island, for fresh air and sunshine.
“We’ve seen a pretty significant drop,” said Robyn Goldsmith, spokeswoman for Tourism Revelstoke.
“It had a pretty profound impact on businesses that were just starting to see a post-COVID uptick.”
Tourism businesses across the interior are once again bracing for the impact of the wildfires on their operations as they try to rebound from two years of pandemic restrictions. Data from Tourism Revelstoke showed local tax revenue from hotel stays fell 23% last August from the previous month after visitors realized the drastic nature of smoke and fires in the area (both months have historically run at similar levels).
Ms Goldsmith pointed out that the hospitality industry was kept afloat by fire crews, who were clearly in need of accommodation; other tourism businesses fare much worse.
She added that domestic tourists are wary of the interior during the peak summer months, and she expects travel habits to change – towards earlier or later parts of the year. . The impact on international tourism remains to be seen, she said.
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The BC Wildfire Service says the 2022 fire season has started averagely and that a heavy snowpack in many interior areas is a positive sign. However, spokesperson Taylor Colman also warned that areas such as the Okanagan continue to experience deep drought conditions in the ground; last year’s intense fires had a lasting impact, leaving the area vulnerable to burns.
Great Canadian Tours, a Revelstoke company that runs mountain bike, off-road and water sports tours, said it plans to scale back summer operations after last year’s dismal period.
He was forced to cancel all off-road activity for weeks last summer due to a ban ordered by the fire brigade and, due to heavy smoke, continued to advise customers not to book even when the ban was lifted.
“We would have ash accumulated within an hour on vehicles or whatever was left outside, and visibility was less than 200 meters for several weeks, so it wasn’t safe to go anywhere,” said assistant manager Heather Scott, who added that there was a time when the town felt deserted.
“Even driving around town you couldn’t see the end of the street you were driving, let alone see the mountains and the sun.”
Revelstoke is a city best known for its winter sports, but it has also built a reputation as a summer destination. Now, Ms. Scott said, she finds it hard to believe that business owners will want to invest during the summer season when wildfires are a variable.
Areas not experiencing the impacts of wildfires as intensely say the challenge is to explain that fires and smoke are not a problem in all parts of the interior.
While the Flying U Ranch at 70 Mile House, British Columbia, had to close for two weeks last summer due to fires, its president and CEO said the business was not in plagued by heavy smoke for most of the season due to its plateau location.
John Lovelace said people often look at the provincial fire map and assume reported fires were near his ranch, when in reality they were hundreds of miles away, with smoke blowing the other way .
“We’ll get calls saying, ‘I hear there’s a big fire over there,’ while we don’t have a big fire here, we have a big fire in Kelowna or north of us,” did he declare.
As people in Western Canada get used to the presence of smoke, Lovelace believes tourists will learn to live with it and work around it. He said the ranch’s business — lodging, horseback riding and other activities — continued to grow last year, and he doesn’t expect that to change.
Meanwhile, the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association said it was optimistic about the upcoming season after demand remained strong through the summer of last year.
Ellen Walker-Matthews, chief executive of the association, said the desire to travel as COVID-19 restrictions were eased outweighed any worries about the fires.
“At one point people said they didn’t care, they were just happy to be able to travel and travel,” she said.
The biggest impact of last summer’s fires was that people were not allowed to cross certain areas under alert, she said, which made it difficult for them to access the valley of the Okanagan. Ms Walker-Matthews said driving in areas under alert is generally not a problem, and the association hopes the measure will not be enforced this summer.
In Revelstoke, Ms Goldsmith said businesses were also doing their best to be optimistic. The region has a good snowpack, which is a positive early indicator.
“There’s a bit of hope that the snowpack will have an impact, but I think people have a bit of PTSD after last year, because it was pretty stunning.”
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