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Banff is packed, but lack of international visitors leaves many businesses struggling


BANFF, Alta. — A walk down the main drag may make it look like all is well in the tourism hot-spot of Banff, where restaurant patios are full and nearby hiking trails are packed on weekends.

But even as Alberta plans to drop nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on July 1st, local businesses and the Banff National Park's tourism board say they'll be sorely missing international tourists for a second peak summer season in a row.

The number of people isn't the problem — there were 1.1 million visitors to the national park in the first half of 2021, barely below 2019's 1.2 million visitors in the same period.

But many of those visitors in 2019 came from abroad, and Banff Lake Louise Tourism said Canadian visitors to the national park simply don't spend their dollars the same way.

"Albertans and Canadians as a whole are much more confident exploring their own national parks, so they don't seek out that support like an interpretive guide or a bus tour," said Leslie Bruce, President and CEO of the tourism board. 

Bruce said tour operators that guide visitors through the park have had an incredibly difficult time staying afloat throughout the pandemic, despite trying to appeal to Canadian consumers with new guided activities like e-biking and mountain biking.

She said hotels have also dealt with lower bookings, since many of the visitors to Banff come from nearby cities like Calgary and will day-trip rather than stay for multiple nights. 

Though more Canadians are able to travel from outside of Alberta this summer, the length of their stays isn't yet clear.

"International visitors tend to stay longer and the big question that we still have ... is how long will people stay? Will they stay for five nights?" said Bruce.

"Or are they just passing through? I think that remains to be seen."

The effect of closed borders has been palpable at the Beaujolais Boutique B&B just off the town's main road, Banff Ave. 

Albert Moser, who owns the bed and breakfast, says his four-room property used to be booked solid through the summer in previous years. 

This summer, he's only been able to attract visitors for weekends after dropping his rates by 20 per cent.

He gets multiple calls for cancellations per week, as people who optimistically booked from the U.S or overseas realize that Canada's borders may not open in time for their late summer plans.

On weekdays, his property sits empty, and the 69-year-old said the current situation is only feasible because he and his wife are the only people running the business.

Moser said he's thankful that widespread vaccination will allow him to open at all after months of sitting empty, and said locals have been enthusiastic about returning to his bed and breakfast multiple times in a summer.

But he said real change for the sector will come only when borders are opened. 

"As many bookings as I get I also get cancellations —  today I had 3 cancellations because people from the U.S. don’t know what’s going to happen," said Moser.

"At some point they have to make their plans, they're not going to wait until later in the summer" for their trips to be confirmed, he added.

Meanwhile for area restaurants, the beginning of the summer brings a sense of optimism, especially with Alberta's speedy re-opening plan meaning they can open without capacity limits by the end of the week.

But most people in Banff's tourism industry use the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" with a sense of trepidation. 

Stephane Prevost, chef and managing partner of Block Kitchen and Bar and Shoku Izakaya, said it felt that things were getting better last summer too. The winter proved to be difficult, especially when Alberta went into a two-week lockdown in the spring.

That most recent lockdown "was quite a kick in the lower area for everybody," he said.

"There was a feeling of resignation and frustration for most businesses."

He said 2020 ended with their business having about 60 per cent of the traffic they'd expect, but there's a real sense that things are moving forward now.

Every lockdown period has had a tremendous impact on Banff, where approximately 90 per cent of the economy is either directly or indirectly connected to tourism, according to Banff Lake Louise Tourism. 

Many tourism jobs vanished immediately at the start of the pandemic, sending foreign workers packing and many Canadian workers back to their hometowns. 

Unemployment skyrocketed to 85 per cent at one point early in the pandemic, and hotel vacancy rates rose to 15 per cent after being at zero per cent at the beginning of 2020.

Despite the drastic impact on international travel, Bruce said very few businesses actually closed over the past year and a half, and only about four businesses formally told the board they were shutting.

Looking ahead, she has a sense of optimism about the future of Banff as a destination, especially with how the pandemic changed people's relationship with the outdoors. 

"The scale of people that want to be outside has grown, and the biggest thing is that we have the infrastructure to support that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2021.

Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press

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