Three years after a devastating fire burned 36,000 hectares of land in Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta, Alpine Stables was set to reopen in its new barn this summer. Then the global pandemic forced the Canadian border shut and cut the town off from international travellers – its main source of business.
“It looked like our summer was booking up, but now everyone is cancelling,” said Jenika Watson, whose family has spent the past 50 years leading tourists on horseback through Waterton’s trails. “For our longer rides and overnight trips, it’s a lot of U.S. and European clients. But we’re totally missing that market right now.”
Since Alberta’s national parks reopened on June 1, the family-run business has made staffing cuts, reduced the number of horses in its stables and shifted its marketing budget to focus on domestic travellers. But even with easing COVID-19 restrictions, Waterton won’t see the rush of international visitors it depends on every summer.
The federal government closed the border to non-essential travel in early March. American travellers were initially exempt but the Canada-U.S. border was closed several days later – a measure that has been extended several times and is now in place until at least July 21. As well, anyone entering the country, including people who live here, is required to quarantine for 14 days.
Alberta’s tourism industry – the fourth largest employment sector in the province – is struggling two weeks after reopening as border closings from the pandemic cause tourism numbers to plummet. Even if travel restrictions lift this summer, businesses expect that international travellers will avoid Canada’s biggest tourism attractions until the summer of 2021 at the earliest.
Of Canada’s national parks, the Rockies that stretch through Alberta and British Columbia attract the most visitors on an annual basis, with Banff National Park and Jasper National Park seeing the highest traffic, according to Parks Canada. And Western Canadian provinces’ travel industries are tightly intertwined. Most international travellers tend to bundle Alberta and B.C. into the same visit, flying into Calgary to tour the parks before making their way to the West Coast or vice versa.
“The provinces are quite integrated from a business perspective in terms of international tourists,” said Chris Heseltine, interim chief executive of Travel Alberta. “More often than not, international visitors to Alberta will venture into B.C.”
Meanwhile, reports of American and out-of-province visitors in parks have caused concern among Western Canadians amid the pandemic. Only 22 per cent of Albertans say they would welcome domestic visitors from other provinces, while less than 10 per cent are comfortable with travellers from the United States and other foreign destinations, according to a survey by Destination Canada.
Without international travellers this summer, businesses in parks and towns where people’s livelihoods depend on tourism may not be able to survive the year. Alberta’s tourism sector is highly dependent on international travellers that tend to stay longer and spend more money. While 5 per cent of all visitors in Alberta in 2017 were international, they spent 24 per cent of all tourist revenue, according to Travel Alberta.
Regional visitors have been taking advantage of lower rates and fewer crowds during the weekend, Mr. Heseltine said, but those visitors disappear again when they return to work on Monday.
“Alberta is blessed and challenged at times by being so heavily dependent on the Canadian Rockies as a Canadian tourism icon and it’s a huge draw for international visitors,” he said. “Banff, Jasper and Waterton are single-industry towns, so when people stop coming – particularly international visitors that are the ones that fill the hotels and restaurants – it really hurts.”
As closed borders and physical distancing requirements force businesses to operate at reduced capacity, they fear that they’ll need to take on more debt to survive through the winter. And two-thirds of businesses said that they would need to operate at between 50 and 75 per cent of their capacity to meet their minimum operating expenses, according to a Travel Alberta survey on the impact of COVID-19.
That’s a difficult target to meet. In normal times, businesses in Jasper make between 60 and 80 per cent of their annual revenue during the summer months when they operate at more than 90 per cent occupancy. This year, Tourism Jasper, the marketing organization of the park, forecasts an average occupancy rate of 30 to 40 per cent relying solely on domestic travellers.
“But that doesn’t necessarily equate to 30 or 40 per cent of revenue,” said James Jackson, president and chief executive of Travel Jasper. “Businesses are having to incur a significant amount of debt and they will need additional revenues to be able to service that debt. I’m concerned that we won’t see revenues of the likes of 2019 for at least 18 months.”
The federal government announced $40-million in May to help the Canadian tourism industry, including nearly $1.5-million for Travel Alberta. Businesses in the sector will also be able to tap into the federal wage subsidy program, which provides 75 per cent of employee wages up to a cap and has been extended until the end of August.
As a border town, Waterton gets most of its tourists from the United States. The Bayshore Inn Resort & Spa makes 80 per cent of its revenue between June and September, 70 per cent of which comes from international travellers, said Shameer Suleman, general manager of the Bayshore and vice-president of the Waterton Chamber of Commerce.
To attract local guests, the Bayshore reduced its room rates and offered deep discounts for guests staying more than one night. While Albertans are starting to book accommodations, the hotel is also missing out on revenue from amenities that cannot reopen, such as the spa and event catering services.
“Even if they open the border, who’s going to come to Canada if they have to quarantine?” he said. “We’re going in with the mindset that we’re not getting any international visitors this year. But we’ll be lucky if we hit 40-per-cent capacity in the park.”
In Banff, Canada’s most visited national park, international tourists make up 50 per cent of summer visitors, according to Leslie Bruce, president and chief executive of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism.
To offset the loss of foreign travellers, businesses have been searching for ways to attract more domestic visitors by marketing to Canadians.
“International visitation, especially in the summer, is very important to Banff,” Ms. Bruce said. “We’re re-examining what we have to offer and communicating it in a way that will make Albertans and Canadians take another look.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.