All travel restrictions have been lifted in B.C. just days after they were introduced, but visitors are not coming back in the same numbers that were expected.
Last Saturday, the premier announced the ban on non-essential travel to the Central Interior and Southeast B.C., in an effort to free up accommodation spaces for wildfire evacuees and frontline responders.
“Things collapsed instantly. Phone just rang off the hook with people saying I need to cancel my reservation,” said Wyn Lewis, owner of Vibrant Vine winery in Kelowna.
He said the Saturday before, they welcomed 400 visitors, and that number drastically dropped to 23 after the travel restrictions were announced.
“So it was as bad as the depths of COVID. It was really, really bad. As soon as people were told to stay away from Kelowna, the tourist business basically dried up completely,” Lewis said.
He said the raging wildfires in the area was a “traumatic” experience, as several of his employees had to be evacuated.
But now things are starting to look up, as visitors packed the lawn to enjoy the winery’s concert series.
To give back to the community, Lewis said they’re donating half of all concert ticket proceeds, which will go to the United Way’s wildfire relief fund.
OTHER REGIONS IMPACTED
Even though the Similkameen Valley was not named in the travel ban, people still steered clear.
“We still feel the effects very acutely because the vast majority of people that visit us are coming to or going from the Okanagan,” explained Chris Mathieson, general manager of Grist Mill and Gardens in Keremeos.
He said the heritage site relies on admission sales and campground reservations to help them get through the winter.
During a typical summer day, they’d see about a hundred guests, but since the travel ban, there have just been a handful of people visiting.
“By not having any tourists at the busiest time of the year, it’s a really big hit on a place that doesn’t make a lot of money,” Mathieson said.
Although the travel restrictions were lifted a few days later, it was already too late, he said.
“People don’t magically reappear the second the bans come off. They still got to plan trips, they’ve still got to make other arrangements,” he said.
He said he’s unclear if they’ll be able to recover from the travel restrictions, but remains hopeful that word is spreading about campground vacancies.
“Our community’s been doing a really good job of stepping up and finding other ways to support us…things like booking campground spots into the future or buying our preserves. So that’s been really reassuring, but it doesn’t completely replace the big hole that the shutdown left behind,” he said.
MILLIONS IN TOURISM DOLLARS GONE
This weekend, Penticton was supposed to welcome the Ironman Triathlon, a world-class event that usually draws international racers and would bring in at least $50 million to the south Okanagan, according to tourism leaders.
But the event was cancelled hours after the premier announced travel restrictions.
“Those people come from international markets, and they stay usually for a long time. They’re usually here for five to 10 days, and they’re gone. So they can’t quickly be replaced,” said Ellen Matthews-Walker, president and CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association.
She said they are still trying to calculate exactly how much money has been lost as a result of the travel restrictions to the region.
She said she spoke to two small lodging operators that saw upwards of $300,000 worth of cancellations in three days.
“Then multiply that to all the various businesses large and small around the region. It’s going to be a staggering number,” she said.
Matthews-Walker is hoping the province will step up to help the tourism and hospitality industry.
They’re requesting the province create a financial program for the businesses impacted, provide marketing dollars to help promote their fall season, assistance to lobby the federal government to extend the payback on COVID relief that’s due in December and create an incentive program to encourage people in B.C., Alberta and Washington State to visit.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to find some solutions for our industry,” she said.
She encourages people to support their favourite businesses by buying gift cards to use at a later date.