Wildfires impact tourism operators

Vanini takes a group down the Clearwater River. Photo supplied.

More than 400,000 hectares of land in B.C. has been burnt by wildfires since April with many of the largest igniting in July. Tourism operators around the province were left scrambling as the fires impacted the province’s peak tourist season.

In nearby Wells Gray Provincial Park operators were shocked by a sudden closure of the entire park on July 9. Guarded blockades stayed in place until the morning of July 25, more than two weeks after the closure.

“This is the busiest time of year for us… there’s been quite a bit of business missed due to the closures,” said Mark Vanini, general manager of Liquid Lifestyles whitewater rafting in Clearwater, B.C.

“We’ve had quite a few cancellations.”

Liquid Lifestyles runs whitewater rafting, kayaking and stand up paddle board trips in the park. Vanini said they had to lay off multiple staff members and cut hours during
the closure.

The cancellations and lack of staff are expected to hurt businesses for the remainder of the season even as the park reopens to welcome guests.

A smoky Sun Peaks’ sunset on July 10. | Photo Maria Davis.

“I’m sure there was thousands of dollars missed out on. All of our guests are here to enjoy the park and if the park is closed they won’t come to Clearwater.”

Stephanie Molina, tourism marketing manager for Tourism Wells Gray, said the closure impacted a significant part of an already short season for operators.

“We’re seeing long-term cancellations. In what was projected to be one of our strongest years, operators are now reporting hundreds and hundreds of cancellations.”

Many business feature products in the park as well as in other locations.

Operators like Liquid Lifestyles were forced to adapt their product with no notice, and Molina said she was impressed by the reactions.

Helmcken falls is a big draw for tourists to visit Wells Gray Park.File Photo.

“I’m really amazed by the resiliency of the operators, they have moved and been really creative. They’re doing everything they can to stay alive.”

Molina said the year has been exceptional and has also thrown the highest water levels and largest windstorm in 20 years at the local industry.

Tourism is the second largest driver of the area’s economy and is projected to have generated more than $30 million in 2016, more than an $11 million increase since 2012.
Even operators not impacted by the closure of Wells Gray or other parks saw downturns due to wildfires.

In Sun Peaks, Sun Peaks Stables owner Robert Taylor said bookings for trail rides have decreased compared to the same time last year.

Some rides were cancelled due to smoke, and while Taylor says some tourists displaced from areas impacted by fire have chosen to visit him it doesn’t cancel out the
lost revenue.

Financially he said he isn’t “freaking out’” yet but the lack of cash will be a challenge.
“It’s not going to be good. It’s going to be hard.”

Robert Taylor leads a trail ride at Sun Peaks. Photo Facebook.

At Heffley Lake, Paddle Surfit, a stand up paddle board operation owned and run by Bodie Shandro, saw a decrease in bookings during the smoky days from the fire.

Shandro said it will have a significant financial impact on his business and questioned if the government will assist the tourism industry the way they have for the softwood lumber and agriculture industries during other crises.

Help may be on the way but it is unclear what form it may come in. Molina said the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association has been working with B.C. Economic Development Association to implement a disaster economic recovery program.

It is also possible some operators’ business interruption insurance may help cover losses

“We will try to find as many resources as we can to help with recovery,” Molina said.

“Lucky for us the park has not been impacted by any wildfires this season. It’s still there with all its majesty and beauty.”

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