I knew travelling in this COVID environment meant things would be a little different. In fact, in the lead up to my 2 short weeks away in August, I had worked >50 hour weeks telling Canadians exactly that. I’d spent months reviewing research about the impact COVID has had on the worldwide and Canadian tourism industry, reading OpEds about best practice and what a new normal could look like, and then converting it for the Canadian consumer. “Travel this summer will look a little different but here’s how to enjoy it”(aka do it safely / with confidence).
The irony was on my first day away I forgot the very advice in our material and failed to pre-book (reduced capacity) tickets online and was now out of reception and they were sold out upon arrival. I missed out. Alas. I hit the road again.
But the further I drove north, the more profound the impact COVID was having on Canada’s tourism industry became. The small town pubs proclaiming ‘world famous burgers’ for the 20km prior were ghost towns. The indigenous communities had huge signs ‘Closed to visitors’. A particular favourite, a few firework sheds were also closed and one had a 5m high sign ‘closed until ?’
I had done a bit of (read: too much) research into various tours: a kayak tour through the inside passage, a grizzly bear boat tour, a small plane tour over the glaciers (I may have been camping but that doesn’t mean I skimp on the fun bits). I checked their websites in the months and weeks leading up to this trip. The websites were vague at best. When I rolled into town, I knew they would be closed and it wasn’t a surprise when they were. I continued on my merry way.
A particular highlight was going to be dipping into the tip of Alaska. (Which every time I say I remember Sandra Bullock in The Proposal stuttering after hearing from co-star and proud Vancouverite, Ryan Reynolds say they were off to Aaaa-las-Ka – though I was far south of Sitka.) Knowing the US-Canada border was remained closed / and 14 day quarantine for essential travellers and also a friend had travelled there a few weeks prior, I had my lowered my expectations and settled on a photo of the border instead. But Stewart, a small gateway town that usually sees a few thousand visitors per day in summer had maybe 20 visitors in the main street. The historic street and its handful of cute stores was filled with ‘closed’ signs.
Meanwhile these northern roads were quiet. Usually filled with German-driven RVs, the parks mid-week were filled with grey nomads. I lowered the average age considerably. Parks that usually are full were at 30-40% capacity mid-week. (Weekends, in my experience, were a little different).
I ducked across to Jasper being ahead of schedule thanks to some less desirable weather for my intended mountain-top hiking. Having visited in June 2018 and 2019, I knew what it usually was like. Also, the Rockies being Canada’s crown jewel have long enjoyed 100% capacity during the summer months and we now push off- and shoulder season. This trip? Sure it was the busiest place I’d seen on my trip so far, but I could park on the Main Street. The hotels had their Vacancy signs illuminated. But most shocking was the Canada Parks attendant alerting me masks were mandatory in the township. About 70-80% of people complied.
Heading south back towards Vancouver, the billboards started about 100km out. There were photos of grizzly bears beside the river. It had my attention: ‘River Safari’. The billboards continued notifying how many more kilometres to go. I finally passed it and I saw on the sign it had an additional tiny little red sign tacked on “Yes! We’re open”. I knew from the previous signs they had tours for only 60mins and leaving every hour! I kept driving. But I couldn’t let it go. I decided to look it up with the few bars of reception I had. The website indicated the same. I chucked a U-ey (over double lines. Shhh). I drove back the 7km and pulled down the 1km dirt track. I soon realized this was a very established business, the same owners of the heli-ski lodge business that also caught my attention. (I don’t get paid quite enough for that!). There were a few cars in the large lot. Within 15mins I was aboard a jet boat soaring down a tranquil lake with a mountain backdrop. Sadly I was oversold on the bears, but the 1 hour tour became 1.5hr (only $88!) and then 2hrs. Without revealing my employer, I asked how the season was going. He said usually I’d would be at home with my country-folk. Alas, they could not hire many people this season and the long forgotten hiring fair at ski resort Big White was a tale of different times. Usually they get a few hundred visitors daily, 5 boats on the water at any point. Today was one boat with 6 people and no one waiting when we finished.
And so it was again, another mid-week campsite with 100% pre-bookability had only 70% sites full. The ranches, B&Bs, roadside stores and cafes were again closed. My hunger pangs continued with my planned sweet treat pitstop at the Swiss Bakery indicating they were closed until October. Another little ice cream store, just ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’
The next day I was out on a tranquil lake kayaking and I saw maybe 10 other people on the 75km-long lake. As I floated along I heard an engine. I’d only seen and heard 1 motorised boat all day – the tour boat leaving from the campsite. I paddled to turn and look the opposite direction. Nothing. I turned again. Nothing. A little confused, I finally looked up. It was a plane. I had not heard a jet plane in weeks, months maybe.
The last few months I’ve been seconded part-time to our research team. I’ve learnt a great deal about the industry, particularly how it’s impacting our competitors, our main markets and indeed our own businesses. 1 in 10 jobs is linked to tourism, but the initial forecasts had 60% of businesses permanently closing if the environment continued beyond September. This week Vancouver Aquarium closed. It was one of the few place I visited on my first tip to Vancouver in 2007. Seeing the hardship firsthand on this trip, I believed it. Yes it’s the airlines and the big companies with 10 jet boats, the resorts banking on the continued >100% capacity, but it’s also the small to medium businesses. The ‘mom and pop shops’ as they’re referred to here. And while my accent might now be far and few between, it’s not the working holiday workers I care about, it’s the locals who will return to natural resources or sit in small towns collecting government welfare without purpose. It’s the highways full of ghost towns in the making.
Of course, my heart also lies with my homeland. I’m now in my 6th year of working in tourism. My time in Queensland introduced me to the man who mortgaged his house to buy a reef boat (and greeted me with a hug and kiss upon visiting – another tell tale sign of different times!), the husband and wife with a small brewery and restaurant, the mum who quit her job to give personalised culinary tours. After a summer of bushfires, and then a winter of travel restrictions, I know they’re also hurting.
This past weekend my friends and I went off to Orca Camp. Picture catered meals, sturdy tents with linen bedding, daily kayaking and a lot more drinking than school camp all just set on a beach on the rugged coastline of Vancouver Island. It was expensive but a treat. It was my opportunity to support a small business. And over the weekend the owner shared how his wife and him had quickly pivoted their business to cater to locals in those early months. He was luckier than the 3 other wilderness camps we passed while cruising the Johnstone Strait. They relied on international staff and chose not to open this year. Thankfully overheads with wilderness sites are low and he and his wife will make it through the summer.
However the experience also had me divided. This pause in the global tourism industry has had some positive impacts on our long suffering environment. Months ago the dolphins reentering in the Venice canals made global headlines. This past weekend I was thankful for the solitude in the usual cruise ship highway to Alaska (and not just because of the privacy I enjoyed in the outdoor shower!) The declining population of sound-sensitive Orcas were enjoying oceans free from the multiple daily cruise ships. Closer to my home, the pandemic forced the provincial government to implement (albeit poorly) a day pass system reducing the number of people on the busiest local trails which had also long been experiencing compression issues.
I’ve loved my work since I was first lured up to the sunshine state. I also love exploring this world slowly. I love encouraging other people to explore it too. But it hurts to see the very industry I support suffering. It’s painful to watch my pilot brother-in-law sit at home furloughed. I am thankful I still have a job in this environment, particularly in an industry so heavily affected. And if there is one thing some 7000km and 5 (?) summer trips around this province have made me sure of, it’s that I’ll keep my head in the game as long as they’ll have me.
Today I had to transition quickly. I was deciding what early bird ski passes to buy ahead of the winter. My decision? The small community-based ski resorts. They need us. They need me to spend. All our tourism business needed us to spend. And you too, if able.
All observations and opinions are my own.