Fishing trips to Canada are a tradition for Jeffrey Hardy and his three friends from Vermont. Since 2001, they’ve been loyal anglers to the wilds of northern Quebec, where walleye is plentiful and cell phone service is not.
This summer, the crisp forest air coveted by recreation seekers visiting Canada was instead polluted with smoke as wildfires ravaged millions of acres, blocking roads, destroying campsites and forcing tour operators to scramble during the peak season. The mid-June men’s fishing trip has been cancelled.
« It was a huge disappointment, » said Mr. Hardy, who is from St. Albans, Vt., but has been living and working remotely from Bermuda since the pandemic began. “Everyone was excited to go because Canada had been shut down for all of Covid.”
The worst fire season on record in the country is straining the outdoor segments of Canada’s tourism industry at a pivotal time in its rebound from years of pandemic travel restrictions. Of the 28.6 million acres burned so far across the country, more than 11.6 million acres were in Quebec, the most of any province, according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.
Fire season typically runs from April to September in Canada, and this year got off to a busy start with mass evacuations in Alberta and Nova Scotia in May, followed by Quebec and parts of northern Ontario. In central British Columbia, where wildfires are escalating, the coroner’s office is investigating the death of a 9-year-old boy from an asthma attack which was said to be « aggravated by smoke from a fire ». Three firefighters died in separate provinces.
Aside from a few days of reduced air quality, major Canadian cities remain largely unaffected by the fires. The fires are in the northern and more remote regions of the country, regions which, in past years, have attracted travelers interested in outdoor experiences.
Federal data compiled by the Tourism Industry Association Canada shows that tourism accounted, in 2019, for a two percent share of Canada’s gross domestic product, or C$44 billion. Due to tight international border restrictions, that figure was cut in half by the pandemic, but has since rebounded to $37.8 billion.
Last year, nearly 9.5 million Americans traveled to Canada and another 3.3 million came mainly from Britain, Mexico, India, France and China. American travelers are the most important demographic for Canada’s tourism industry, with international visitor rates projected to recover by 2026 and tourism spending by 2024, according to Destination Canada, a government-owned marketing organization.
In a recent report, the organization said visitors spent C$1.9 billion from 2018 to 2019, half of the total spent by international visitors, in the cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
But other Canadian destinations attractive to visitors, such as hiking trails in British Columbia or campgrounds in Eastern Ontario and Quebec, have also been affected by the fires. Earlier this month, the rains brought some relief to Quebec, perhaps too late.
« For some, the most profitable part of this season is behind them, » said Dominic Dugré, president of Quebec Outfitters, an industry group. About 330 wilderness outfitters – such as the fishing lodge Mr Hardy intended to use – were temporarily closed due to the fires, with revenue losses of more than C$10 million, according to Mr Dugré’s estimates. About 30 camps and huts, he added, were burned or damaged.
The Quebec government is offering businesses affected by the fires financial support through guaranteed loan programs, totaling C$50 million.
Repaying debt accrued during the pandemic is a top concern for Canadian tour operators, especially small businesses, said Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. The group is urging the government to extend repayment times.
In anticipation of increased visitor volumes and ongoing fires, some companies are rethinking how to adapt their operations.
“This will be the new thing we do as travel agents promoting outdoor recreation as a tourism opportunity,” said Renée Charbonneau, executive director of the Canadian Motorcycle Tourism Association, based in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
The association’s non-profit travel agency is considering creating a questionnaire for customers to indicate at what level on the air quality index they will postpone or cancel a booking, Ms Charbonneau said, adding that a recent motorcycle tour was postponed due to road closures due to fires, reduced air quality and lack of visibility.
Losing reference points
About 30,000 Albertans were evacuated from their homes in May as the fire season began, which has continued to rage and is now ramping up in British Columbia, where the largest number of fires are currently burning. This comes two years after a devastating heat wave that hit the county coroner said it caused 619 deaths, followed by widespread fires, including one that destroyed the rural town of Lytton, killing two.
Tourism in British Columbia contributes the most to the province’s gross domestic product: CAD 5 billion according to the latest government figures as of 2021 – compared to the province’s next largest industry, petroleum, at $4.5 billion. The province has a wide range of recreational offerings, from the premier ski destination of Whistler to wineries in the Okanagan Valley and kayaking or hiking along the Pacific coast.
Blackcomb Helicopters, a Whistler-based helicopter tour and utility company, has canceled or rescheduled its sightseeing excursions and other offerings, including flights that take picnickers to remote alpine lakes or mountain bikers to summits. The company is using the majority of its fleet for the firefighting effort through at least the beginning of August.
“It’s about taking our customers on sightseeing tours or putting out fires within five to 10 kilometers of our bases of operations and the communities we live in,” said Jordy Norris, the company’s director of tourism and a former firefighter. « We have made it clear to both our staff and our customers that we have a duty to protect the yard. »
Some parts of the courtyard went up in flames.
Darrin Rigo, videographer and photographer, was recently filming a waterfall at a recreational site, Greer Creek Falls, for a local tourist board in the northern part of the province. A boardwalk cuts through the lush forest, taking visitors to the waterfalls, where crystal clear water and perfect skies have captured what Mr. Rigo says makes British Columbia’s nature a jewel. “We were so excited to send it to our customers and invite people to come see it,” he said.
Two weeks later, on a community Facebook page, he saw a photo someone had shared of the park entrance engulfed in 30-foot-high flames.
“What happened with Greer Creek was my first time losing a really nice landmark, close to home,” Rigo said. « I’m looking at this map of all these fires around us, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the only one. »
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