Weeks, if not months, may pass until the full economic effects of the wildfires that destroyed countless homes in the Central Okanagan among other major tourism regions, will become available.
But Lisanne Ballantyne, president and chief executive officer of Kelowna Tourism — which covers a region from Lake Country to Peachland — has already heard from many tourism businesses now facing a struggle for survival.
“My call-back sheet is long and heart-breaking,” she said. “I’m having one-on-one phone calls with businesses, that are saying, ‘we are bankrupt, we are not going make it past Monday. We are done.’”
While Ballantyne added that she is having these conversations with smaller operators, major hotel chains in the region have also suffered.
Reported occupancy rates (which ultimately translate into revenue) dropped somewhere between 30 and 45 per cent of where they would have been during the final two weeks in August, Ballantyne said.
The fires that sprung up across the region could not have come at a worst time, she added. While tourism operators generate revenue in June and July, they start seeing profits in August, Ballantyne said.
“And that has disappeared,” she said.
The region is now trying to save the fall shoulder season by having launched a campaign across Canada. Other efforts are also underway, Ballantyne said.
“One thing that we are hearing is needed is a request for immediate cash flow relief for businesses that were in the fire-zone, but also those businesses that were affected by the travel restrictions,” she said.
Such measures might include easily accessible grants, direct compensation for the accommodation sector which lost business because of the travel advisory, COVID-19-style wage subsidies, and the removal of an EI requirement for seasonal employees.
“It’s a list that goes on,” Ballantyne said, adding the industry recently held talks with Tourism Minister Lana Popham.
On balance, Ballantyne describes the impact of the fires on her region and the need for the immediate help as “unprecedented.”
J.J. Belanger, chair of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., strikes a similar note.
“The entire summer was spent either fighting fires or moving people around the province that were in the province around the fires,” he said. So it’s a very challenging year for tourism operators as a whole.”
While the final figures for B.C. are still coming in, wildfires caused significant economic losses for tourism operators, he said.
Belanger, who serves as general manager of the Crystal Cove Resort in Tofino, can speak to this first hand.
“Just for our sake here in Tofino (and Uclulet) with the fire on Highway 4 (in June) that closed the highway for two and a half weeks and forced people to take a detour…the loss of revenue was $44 million,” he said, citing a study from the local chamber of commerce.
When extrapolated across the province, Belanger predicts that the provincial tourism industry will have lost “hundreds of millions” of dollars “never to be recovered.”
Belanger and Ballantyne also point to another, incalculable cost.
“The other challenge is, when you see on CNN or Canadian national news or even in Europe, in the UK, that Canada’s on fire and we’re having our worst fire season, that doesn’t bode well, not only for tourism for this year, but future years,” Belanger said. “People may take a wait-and-see attitude from now on.”
In other words, people may forego travelling to British Columbia in future years.
“So it’s really going have a lasting effect on tourism in our province and then Canada,” Belanger said.
Ballantyne said the Kelowna Visitor Centre continues to field hundreds of calls from people, who wonder whether it is safe to travel to the region in the fall or next year.
“And of course, we can’t answer what’s going to happen in a year,” she said. “But what we can control is the experience when (tourists) get here and the communication.”
Other major tourism regions around the world including parts of southern Europe also had to deal with the effects of wildfires exacerbated by climate change, but that is cold comfort for tourism operators in British Columbia.
“As climate change takes hold, this is going to be a problem moving forward, because people are going to look for safer places to vacation that may not have had issues in the past, because nobody wants to get stuck, either being evacuated or having to change their plans last minute,” he said. “So people are really going to start choosing when and where to travel.”
In other words, the seasonal patterns of tourism in British Columbia may change.
“We might see a bit of slowdown over the summer seasons, but may be we pick it up in the spring, in the fall, when the risk is much lower,” Belanger said.
But wildfires, a familiar and worsening phenomenon in British Columbia, do not represent the only climate-related threats. As the climate changes, expert predict less snow in the winter (which would impact tourism operators offering winter activities) and lower river and lake levels outside the ski season (which would impact tourism operators offering water-related activities).
More broadly, a drier future with less available water not only raises the threats of wildfires, but would also increasingly pit the tourism industry against other users already struggling with access to water such as farmers but also fisheries and industrial users, not to mention day-to-day domestic users.
So the tourism industry — like everyone else — has to find ways to become more resilient in the face of climate change.
“That’s the conversation we are having now and we will be moving forward through this winter season because we definitely need to do something,” Belanger said. “The drought level in B.C. has never been this high and that’s a major factor for what has gone on this summer. So we need a year of solid rain and a very, very healthy snowpack before this drought is going to go away and we don’t even know the full effects of the drought.”
The process of making the tourism industry more resilient in the face of climate change will take place on two levels.
Belanger said tourism operators have been looking at ways to make their businesses more sustainable, saving resources such as water wherever possible by trimming back certain services. These efforts on the micro-level, which will also require a change of expectation among tourists themselves, co-exist with efforts on the macro-level.
Belanger said his association will also be working with other related associations to develop contingency plans in cooperation with government to help prepare the industry for the future.
For example, Belanger said he would like to see provincial government significantly expand the Fire Smart BC program to lessen the effects of wildfires, while preventing future ones, a point echoed by Ballantyne.
Belanger would also like to see the provincial government quickly help tourism operators impacted by 2023 wildfires. The association is also lobbying the federal government to push back the deadline on repaying interest-free loans to tourism businesses through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) by two years to Dec. 31, 2025.
According to a survey by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, 45 per cent of tourism operators said they were likely or somewhat likely to shut down operations within three years unless they receive some financial relief.
For now though, the focus lies on securing immediate relief and preparing for next year.
“We need to hunker down this winter and develop these contingency plans for businesses, so that they are prepared in case of a climate emergency in their area,” Belanger said.