B.C. tourism numbers stable despite wildfire fallout

Smoke hurts some businesses, but hotel occupancy remains high

Sea to Sky Gondola general manager Kirby Brown said forest-fire smoke has cut visits to his attraction in half | Rob Kruyt

Tourism officials and business owners say B.C. is having a decent summer for tourism despite weeks of wildfires raging in the province’s interior and thick smoke obscuring mountain views in Metro Vancouver.

More than 900 fires have burned in the province so far this fiscal year, causing the evacuation of thousands of residents and the disruption of tourism businesses in affected areas, particularly Ashcroft and Cache Creek.

Kamloops, which caught the brunt of some of the fires’ smoke and suffered through air quality that hit record lows, continued to see visitors.

Coast Kamloops Hotel and Conference Centre general manager Adarsh Bachhal told Business in Vancouver that about 10% of her hotel guests have cancelled and been given refunds if they phoned to say that the cancellation was because of the smoke.

The resort is still busy, Bachhal said, because much of its business comes from tour groups and from tourists who buy packages to travel on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Smoke has also drifted into the main tourist regions of Metro Vancouver, the Whistler-Sea-to-Sky region and the Okanagan.

Winery owners, such as Tinhorn Creek Vineyards co-owner Sandra Oldfield, have seen the smoke regularly but say that visitor counts are up slightly from last year.

One blow to tourist activity occurred when Red Bull 400 race organizers in Whistler pulled the plug on their August 5 event at the last minute because forest-fire smoke made the air quality unhealthy for heavy exertion.

Contestants would have climbed a steep 37-degree, 400-metre slope up the Whistler Olympic Park’s ski jump. Because many had already arrived at Whistler before the cancellation, the resort did not suffer a jolt of vacancies.

Tourism Whistler spokeswoman Marion Young said her organization’s data shows that occupancy in the Village of Whistler was up 8% compared with last year in the week that the Red Bull 400 was set to take place.

Her expectation is that visits to the resort community will be flat for the month of August compared with last year.

Whistler Blackcomb would not reveal its visitor counts, but, down the road at the Sea to Sky Gondola, general manager Kirby Brown told BIV that visits to his attraction are down compared with what he would have expected had there been clear blue skies.

“We basically have three volumes: one is a sunny day; the next is a cloudy day; and the third is a rainy day,” he said.

“The smoke has almost the identical effect on us as a cloudy day does, which is that we have half as many visitors. A rainy day would be half as many again.”

Down in Vancouver, tourism officials are buoyant and say tourism has remained strong despite the smoke.

“If we were to see the situation persist for months then we would probably look at it a bit differently,” Tourism Vancouver CEO Ty Speer told BIV on August 9.

He stressed that the haze had only been around, at that point, for about a week and that past instances of summer smoke did not deter tourists.

One of the city’s best-ever months for tourism was June 2015, when haze blanketed the city as the FIFA Women’s World Cup final was played at BC Place Stadium.

“From that point we’ve done nothing but build our summer volume,” Speer said, “so I think you could look backward at one very comparable instance from which we saw no detrimental impact on the destination.”

However, English Bay Bike Rentals owner Joe Kainer usually does a brisk business with tourists, and he told BIV that rentals at his bike shop declined about 10% on days when haze blanketed the city.

Aside from the fires, another factor that B.C. tourism businesses have had to deal with this summer is the impact of a rising Canadian dollar.

The loonie was worth less than US$0.73 in early May, and it quickly spiked briefly to more than US$0.80 in late July. The dollar has since fallen back slightly, but costs remain higher than some visitors likely expected when they booked their travel.

But Speer doubts that the currency rise has negatively affected visitor counts.

“Americans do not watch currency rates,” he said. “They just don’t. We’ve researched that on a number of fronts. I think that the currency shift would be unlikely to impact American travel north.” •