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Prince George-area campgrounds filling up, post-pandemic tourism numbers rebounding

Sky-high fuel prices impacting travel plans but haven't crippled holiday roadtrip visits to north central BC
Camping pic
Local residents are getting back to nature pitching tents and parking their RVs in campgrounds in north central BC, despite sky-high fuel prices that add considerably to the cost of travel.

Fuel costs are touching the stratosphere but the price at the pumps hasn’t stopped owners of recreational vehicles from venturing out to local campgrounds.

This past weekend, campground operator Don Stephen almost had to hang the ‘No Vacancy’ sign at Crooked River Provincial Park, a 64-site campground 70 km north of the city.

“Crooked River was almost full, which is really good for the first weekend in June, and all the other parks including Purden Lake were about half-full, which is normal,” said Stephen, who owns Quartz Contracting, which manages the provincial campgrounds in north central B.C. as a private contractor for BC Parks.

“June is not overly (busy); we should start filling up pretty soon. If it’s raining on a Friday it make a big difference. I’m not sure if the gas prices have made a difference yet but I assume that they will. I know it costs me a lot. I put on a minimum of 1,000 kilometres a week and I’m usually hauling equipment and it can be expensive. I went to Fort St. James hauling a trailer and burnt half a tank.”

Campgrounds opened last month but unseasonably cool weather and the third-rainiest May on record kept some campers grounded. Stephen says that will likely change over the next few weeks once summer arrives. He knows RV sales spiked during the two-year pandemic and people who bought campers, trailers, motorhomes  and tents during that time, when travel bans were in effect, are anxious to get out of the city to take advantage of Mother Nature’s offerings.

“I expect a pretty good summer in Prince George,” said Stephen. “I anticipate (people are) going to want to get out and  do stuff because they’ve been stuck at home the last two years.

“A lot of people  bought RVs in the last few years and once you buy an RV you feel obligated to use it.”

He’s hoping to see a return of longer-haul campers to the 125-site Mount Robson Provincial Park campground near the Alberta border 300 km east of Prince George. That site was relatively deserted the past two summers because of pandemic-related restrictions on interprovincial travel.

“The local ones here – Purden, Crooked River and Whiskers Point (130 km north) - did really well during COVID and people went out still,” said Stephen. “It was something you could do.

“The bus traffic is coming back to the (Mount Robson) visitors centre and we think there will be a lot more of that this year.”

Stephen and his staff of 40 also operate Beaumont provincial campground at Fraser Lake (134 km west),  as well as Paarens Beach (170 km west) and Sowchea Bay (175 km west) of the south side of Stuart Lake near Fort St. James.

Of the nine provincial park campgrounds, only Crooked River and Mount Robson offer shower facilities. BC Parks this year installed electrical plugins for 50 of the 125 sites and now has electric vehicle charging stations. Firewood is available at all provincial campgrounds for a $10 fee, which provides enough wood to fill a 40-litre plastic container.

Al provincial campgrounds in the area were open by mid-May and will close on Sept 11, with the exception of Purden and Crooked River, which are open to Sept. 18, and Mount Robson, which closes Sept. 30. Reservations can be made on the BC Parks website at camping.bcparks.ca.

TOURISTS RETURNING TO PRINCE GEORGE VISITOR CENTRE

The flow of people traffic to the Tourism Prince George visitor centre on First Avenue and Quebec Street is returning to pre-COVID times and that comes as welcome news for Tourism PG CEO Colin Carson, who worried that gasoline priced at more than $2 per litre, as it has been the past month, would cripple the industry.

“Shockingly, it’s still really busy, we haven’t really seen it affect us yet,” said Carson. “Obviously, there’s some concern that it could but so far, campsites are busy, there’s still a lot of people heading north to Alaska and we’re not seeing that decrease yet. What we’re hoping for as a tourism industry is that pent-up demand for travel is gong to outweigh the hurt of the cost.”

The rate of inflation and rising costs of fuel, goods and services in relation to wages is convincing more people to put off longer roadtrips and stay closer to home for their holidays, as they did during the pandemic.

“I think the locals and the people from the region appreciate what we have here so maybe they’re sticking around for a different (financial) reason this year but it definitely could happen again this summer.”

Carson has yet to see the usual amount of American tourists and predicts that could take months to recover with COVID tests still required at the border.

“We haven’t had numbers the last two years and it’s busy but maybe not quite as busy as 2019,” said Carson. “We’re not sure if that’s people who are unvaccinated and can’t cross the border or people who  just aren’t comfortable traveling yet or if that’s something to do with gas prices.”

Carson said visits from Europeans are also down compared to the same time in 2019.

VIA Rail continues to operate sporadic passenger train service in and out of the city. During the pandemic, VIA reduced its service to Prince George to one train per week and in April increased the frequency to two trains per week. The train arrives from Jasper on Sunday evenings, leaves for Prince Rupert on Monday mornings , then comes back from Prince Rupert on Wednesday evenings, leaving for Jasper Thursday mornings.

The train station is right next door to Tourism PG at 1300 First Ave. The hours of operation for the visitor centre are 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Monday – Friday) and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Saturday). Tourism PG is also utilizing its mobile services on location to get to people at events around the city.