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Alasdair Douglas, Managing Director of Rockwood Adventures, poses for a photograph at Capilano River Regional Park in North Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 6, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The pandemic has made international visitors vanish, but it’s still hard to find a hotel room in Tofino or the Okanagan at any price.

Room rates in British Columbia show no signs of discounting and are, in fact, higher than normal in some cases. Campsites at provincial parks and some private ones are almost impossible to get. Beaches seem to be standard, summer-season busy.

But the apparent flood of locals into the tourism breach is disguising an underlying iceberg of problems, say those in the business.

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Many hotels are operating at half or, at most, 60-per-cent capacity to comply with health regulations, or simply because they can’t find enough staff. Tourism outside the hot spots is much sparser. And many of the high-end or specialty businesses that once catered to predominantly well-off American, European and Asian visitors are particularly hard hit.

Luxury resorts such as Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, Sonora Resort and other fly-in destinations that typically cost thousands a night have simply closed for the season. Offerings that attract foreigners wanting a special B.C. experience – kayaking tours, guided hunting and fishing expeditions, grizzly-bear viewing lodges, whale-watching boats and personalized excursions for cruise passengers and hotel guests – are all hurting.

On top of it all, many in this industry, which is the third-biggest economic generator in B.C., say a lack of government support tailored to their often seasonal businesses is devastating.

While many in B.C. may never use – or even know about – these tourism services, specialty operators say they add hundreds of millions of dollars to the province’s tax revenues and are often key employers that help keep smaller B.C. communities thriving.

Alasdair Douglas runs one such business. He’s the managing director of Rockwood Adventures, which used to cater specifically to corporate groups, cruise lines and privately booked leisure visitors (George Lucas and his family of 13, wanting to visit Victoria and Whistler, among them). He employed about 20 guides.

Now, all those sources of tourism have vanished. He is working to repackage some activities for locals, including stays at northern lodges and glamping excursions at an uninhabited island in the Salish Sea. In the meantime, he doesn’t qualify for the federal government’s payroll subsidy.

Although his revenues for May, June and July were down from this time last year by 100 per cent, he also didn’t have any revenue or wage costs in the Jan. 1 to March 31 period – the required second condition.

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“All these seasonal business are ineligible for [Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy] and this is crippling right now for a lot of tourism businesses trying to restart and focus on the local and domestic markets,” he said.

On Quadra Island, kayaking-tour operator Rick Snowdon is anticipating a similar problem, only in reverse. Although he’s received some of the federal wage subsidy for guides at his Spirit of the West company, he anticipates that will end when they finish their season early in September. Then he’ll be trying to figure out how to make it to next summer, which he also expects to see reduced business, with no income for the winter.

Mr. Snowdon once ran several multiday tours on various routes across northern Vancouver Island. Now, he is only able to offer one package, limited by reduced access to land because of concerns from Indigenous groups and small communities about visitors, as well as general pandemic-safety rules.

Like others, he said the wave of vacationing B.C. residents forced to stay within the provincial boundaries is not making up for the missing international tourists.

“For anyone who is doing a guided experience, there’s been a huge drop in activity. BCers know their province and how to get around.”

British Columbians tend to prefer independent vacations, relying on camping and recreational vehicles. Few are willing to pay for guides or lodges that provide distinctly B.C. experiences. “Why should I pay $9,000 to see a bear?” is the response he and his fellow specialty tourism operators hear.

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Those among that group managing to keep some level of operations running say their success is tenuous, partly dependent on so many other businesses being closed.

At the Nimmo Bay Resort, an isolated cluster of nine cabins and a lodge in a remote bay that visitors fly in to from northern Vancouver Island, bookings are steady. That’s in spite of the many cancellations from international visitors, who usually make up at least 85 per cent of the clientele and typically reserve a year in advance. The resort charges almost $2,000 a person per day.

“We’re full next week. It’s working out for this season,” office manager Jenny Jewczyk said. Residents of B.C., Ontario and Alberta are coming for honeymoons or special family gatherings that had originally been planned for elsewhere. It has probably helped that many other similar-quality resorts have closed, she acknowledged.

But Nimmo Bay – which recently spent two years and money a new lodge – is already planning for a shorter season next year and anticipates continued fallout from the pandemic.

Walt Judas, chief executive of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, said the problem with the federal support program is one of the key issues his group is pushing. The other, bigger one, is a request to the province for $680-million to help prevent widespread collapse during the lengthy time it will take the industry to fully recover.

Governments need to pay special attention to continuing reductions, he said, emphasizing how important tourism is to the B.C. economy. According to the tourism association, it contributes $4.5-billion in taxes to the three levels of government – $1.7-billion to the province, 2.1-billion federally and $700-million to local municipalities – and accounts for $21.5-billion in annual revenue within B.C.

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While the Okanagan, Kootenays and west coast of Vancouver Island appear to be doing well, it’s because they are operating at only part of their capacity, he said. The Okanagan and Kootenays, in particular, have always drawn a lot of tourists from Alberta, which is keeping businesses there going – when they can find the people to work at their facilities.

“We have pockets of B.C. that are really busy. So there’s this perception that tourism is back. But a lot of the hotels are not fully open. And in Penticton they can’t find the staff.”

As well, even when B.C. residents do vacation in their province, “they spend a quarter of what international visitors do.”

Even more worrying, those B.C. vacationers are likely to disappear in September, as people return to work and children head back to some form of schooling. Many seasonal operators have worked through October in the past, thanks to international visitors. That’s unlikely to happen this year.

Over all, “the industry isn’t expected to rebound for 12 to 18 months,” he said.

Operators such as Mr. Snowdon know that a lot of people don’t grasp what an impact the tourism industry has, even during the off-season months.

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“It’s like a farming operation. It’s a short season, but it’s a very productive season. And we’re very active during the winter months, booking and planning. Most of our bookings are six to eight months in advance. We don’t just open the doors and the RVs pull in.”

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.

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