COVID-19 IMPACT ON BUSINESS (5/5): Tourism numbers bruising: drop in summer traffic expected

By Andru McCracken


In a typical summer, say 2017 through 2019, 60% of Valemount’s summer traffic has been international visitors according to statistics kept at the Valemount Information Centre. Valemount’s economic development officer Silvio Gislimberti said local tourist businesses will be bracing for a big hit this summer, because by law, international visitors aren’t flying to Canada, and if they do they’ll be required to endure a 14-day quarantine period.

Like many business owners, Thoni and his wife at the Caribou Grill are examining their business model, considering opening for a few days a week or for take-out only. They are currently closed. /LAURA KEIL

“Even right now in Europe, they have not yet opened borders between the European countries,” he said.

Some estimate Vancouver’s numbers will be down by 80%, said Gislimberti.

Valemount could fair better. Unlike Vancouver, about 40% of the community’s traffic at the tourism info centre is from BC and Alberta.

Gislimberti said an increase in the number of staycations could improve those numbers further but encouraging tourism is a quandary.

“It’s a little bit tricky. On one hand, one would like to say, ‘Yes, we’re open, please come.’ On the other hand, we have to say we have to be very careful because if anything goes wrong, we do not have the means and the facilities to really take care of ourselves.”

Councilor Pete Pearson, chair of Tourism Valemount, said as much at a recent council meeting.

“It’s an interesting time for a tourism committee. Our job is to promote tourism, but it’s pretty hard to promote tourism when you are telling people, ‘Don’t come,’” he said.

Questions abound for local operators.

“Is it okay to come and use the bike park? Are the rec sites open?” asked Pearson. “It makes it really interesting trying to promote our area without encouraging people to come.”

Pearson noted that the number of reservations for BC Provincial Parks crashed the system.

He said he’d like to work with council to develop what he called ‘a united front’ and to answer questions from prospective travellers.

Mayor Owen Torgerson said he could sense the frustration of local operators, but also those visiting Valemount in spite of the words of the Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry.

“Somebody else’s backyard is pretty appealing when there are 60,000 in your own,” said Torgerson.

Gislimberti said the tourism office is getting numerous inquiries about what is open.

“People want to go somewhere,” he said.

Industrial uptick
Gislimberti is hopeful that with an increase in industrial activity, namely the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion scheduled for late summer will soften the blow.

Tourism Valemount has surveyed local hospitality providers to find out what services they can provide for pipeline workers according to the rules and directives of the health officer.

“We will pass on all this to Trans Mountain so that they can then use that info,” he said.

It’s going to be a bruising summer for tourism, and end to a three-year growth streak that defied deluges, wildfire and smoke. Visitor numbers climbed during 2017, the year that fires raged in the Caribou diverting traffic onto

Highway 5 past the community. But the trend held for 2018 and 2019.

“Totally crazy: in 2018 we still had an increase and traffic increased in 2019,” he said.

A nerve game
Rudi Thoni is the co-owner and chef at the Caribou Grill in Valemount. He said they have decided not to reopen yet because there isn’t enough traffic to sustain their operations.

He said food costs are huge and if they don’t have the business, food goes to waste.

“It’s too much of a nerve game. It costs you 15 to 20 grand just to start back up… if a week later they say ‘Sorry.’ …that hurts,” he said.

Thoni is watching China and South Korea reopen and notes that they have at times reimposed lock down measures.

If the lockdown continues on for more than a year it could spell trouble for the restaurant.

“We know we can’t just keep going. We’re all limited, right?”

An odd turn
Thoni said that the many delays to the start of the pipeline could end up saving Valemount’s tourism sector.

“With the pipeline, hopefully that will be enough business to warrant us opening up.”

Like many business owners, Thoni and his wife are examining their business model, considering opening for a few days a week or for take-out only.

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