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B.C. tourism operators brace for sluggish holiday season

Backcountry skiing. (via File photo)

Pressure on B.C. residents to stay put this holiday season is likely to further crimp the province’s hard-hit tourism and hospitality sectors.

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry said Thursday (Nov. 19) that B.C. residents should not embark on non-essential travel outside their communities until at least until Dec. 7.

That directive echoed her earlier strong recommendations aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“I strongly encourage people to limit your travel as much as possible, and that is in all areas of the province,” Henry said Nov. 16. “Now is not the time to travel for recreational or non-essential purposes, whether it’s from the Lower Mainland to the Island, whether it’s between the Interior and the North, or whether it’s to and from other provinces in Canada. We need to stay local.”

On Nov. 7, Henry issued an official ban on travel to play sports from within the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions to outside those zones, and even travel between those two health regions, but she did not issue a legal ban on travel for non-sports purposes.

The government’s wording lent encouragement to some ski resort operators, such as Big White senior vice-president Michael Ballingall, who stressed to Glacier Media that there was no official ban on travel and that the directive was merely advice.

“They use the term ‘highly recommended,’” he said Nov. 12, before adding that his resort had pulled marketing initiatives in Metro Vancouver. “There’s no point in teasing the market when the right thing to do is not to travel. What we’ve always said is, ‘When the time is right, and you feel safe to travel, we’ll have a bed waiting for you.’”

He added that while some British Columbians cancelled bookings at his resort after Henry’s advice to stay home, others, from Quebec and Ontario, made bookings in part because Swoop continues to operate nonstop flights between nearby Kelowna and Toronto.

Premier John Horgan, however, has been beseeching Canadians in other provinces not to travel to B.C. unless on essential business. Communities such as Tofino and Ucluelet have issued statements urging visitors to stay away.

Whistler Blackcomb, unlike Big White, is within the Vancouver Coastal Health region, so visitors from Vancouver would be staying in the same health region.

The Vail Resorts, Inc.-owned attraction has instituted health protocols, and corporate communications manager Jennifer Smith told Glacier Media that skiers and snowboarders are required to have reservations to get up the mountain once it opens on Nov. 26.

“Pass-product holders have a window from now until Dec. 8 to lock in their priority access days,” she said. “We are expecting most people will be able to get the ski days they want the majority of the time.”

Whistler also requires face-covering and social distancing.

Destination British Columbia (DBC) stopped marketing the province to British Columbians on Nov. 7, the marketer’s vice-president of global marketing, Maya Lange, told Glacier Media.

Her organization normally markets the province internationally and does not market the province to British Columbians because that is typically the role of local destination marketing organizations. DBC pivoted fast, however, in the summer, and started domestic marketing when the province’s restart plan allowed intra-provincial travel. DBC launched a ski-focused marketing campaign on October 12, only to pause it when Henry warned against non-essential travel within B.C., even while not explicitly forbidding it. 

Even if case counts start to fall, and the province again encourages travel, resort operators are likely to suffer steep revenue declines in part because many visitors like to plan in advance.

Another reason for that is because DBC statistics show that locals spend far less lavishly than do international visitors. 

“In a normal year, international visitors generate about 51 per cent of [tourism] revenue but only 26 per cent of visits,” Lange said. 

This year, one possible scenario is that travel restrictions get extended throughout December, and Metro Vancouver residents take staycations, and try to enjoy local activities.

Speculation is that the provincial order against gatherings could ban attractions, such as the Canyon Lights exhibit at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park and the Bright Nights Christmas Train in Stanley Park, but Henry has not yet addressed whether those attractions can operate. 

Henry, and Health Minister Adrian Dix, are set to have a media availability later today, and may add clarity to what holiday attractions are able to open.