Wild weather has mixed effect on B.C. tourism

Flood evacuees flock to hotels; ski resorts see snowpacks recede

Flooding overwhelms the Whatcom Road Interchange in the Fraser Valley, stranding motorists | DriveBC

Business owners in B.C.’s tourism sector are thankful that the so-called atmospheric river, which dumped up to 230 mm of rain in parts of the province November 13 through 15, came during its shoulder season.

Summer tourists have long gone, while ski resorts are yet to open and holiday-season visits are more than a month away.

Before the storm, which prompted flooding and evacuations in pockets of the province, including the entire 7,000-person town of Merritt, executives at the 210-room Kelowna Sandman Hotel & Suites were expecting to be 60% occupied, front desk manager-in-training Abhi Rawat told BIV.

“We’re full,” he said, adding that the hotel is providing evacuees with a government rate, and that the hotel would be compensated for those discounts by the B.C. government’s emergency services department.

A series of landslides and wash-outs closed all highways connecting the Lower Mainland to the Interior. Some motorists were stranded on Highway 1, between Sumas Way and Whatcom Road, in Abbotsford.

People who were able to get out of that logjam provided business for hotels, such as the Abbotsford Hotel, on Clearbrook Road, just off the highway.

Front desk clerk Raj Sidhu told BIV that guests occupied 40 of his hotel’s 42 rooms on November 15, with most of the reservations being last-minute online bookings.

He said he thought many of those customers were motorists who had not intended to stay in a hotel overnight, and that on a standard mid-November night the hotel would see about 45% occupancy.

Often, when there is rain on the coast, Interior mountains get snow.

The atmospheric river, however, carried water and warmer air that drenched Big White Ski Resort, which had been planning to open on November 25.

“We lost about 30 cm of snow,” Big White vice-president of sales and marketing Michael Ballingall told BIV. “We had about a 50 cm base, and we’re down to about 22 cm.”

He said he is concerned that a section of the Coquihalla Highway, between Hope and Merritt, washed away.

“That's where all our groceries come from, for all our restaurants,” he said. “Our customers come down that road. People who come from overseas do ski safaris – visiting Big White, Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, that's what they do. They rent a car in Vancouver, and do a little circuit. So we're fielding calls from people who are concerned [about the roads].”

Damage to the Coquihalla Highway appears to be extensive, and government officials have yet to project a date when the highway could reopen.

Some good news is that the Okanagan’s wine region should be able to weather the storm, Wine Growers British Columbia CEO Miles Prodan told BIV.

One challenge could be that wineries have trouble delivering wine to customers. November, however, is as slow a time of year for wine tourists as it is for grape growing. Most fruit has been picked, he explained.

Some wineries have left grapes on vines with the intention of making icewine, but this year had been shaping up to be a low-yield year for icewine, with only 80 tonnes of grapes registered to be left on vines, and only four wineries registered to pick those grapes and make the wine.

In order to make icewine, wineries must register their intent with the BC Wine Authority, which is the regulatory authority for BC VQA.

B.C.’s hospitality sector is also unlikely to take a hit from the storm, according to BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association CEO Ian Tostenson.

“I think we’ll be all right, apart from supply chain disruption in the Interior,” he said. “It's going to be a problem, but it was already was a problem, and is just going to be exasperated. This is a shoulder period for us.”