The temporary closure of a national park in Alberta due to overwhelming numbers of visitors was the exception, not a sign of the future, says Parks Canada — and unlikely ever to happen in parks like Banff despite the flood of guests lured by free admission during the country's 150th birthday.
Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta was so full that it was forced to turn visitors away on the August long weekend, a closure that lasted less than two hours.
It was the first time Waterton Lakes has been closed due to the sheer number of visitors, and it was the only national park to do so this year, Parks Canada says.
"Certainly some national parks are busy. However, visitation levels have been manageable," said Meaghan Bradley, a communications officer with Parks Canada.
"The planning, preparations and new measures that have been put in place for 2017 are helping more Canadians than ever before enjoy high-quality and meaningful experiences at Parks Canada places."
Parks Canada said there was a nine per cent increase in visitors from January to June compared with the same period last year, including visits to national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas. A total of 24.6 million people visited national parks in 2016, and there were 23.2 million visitors in 2015.
On Sunday, access to Waterton at the junction of Highway 5 and Highway 6, near the entrance gate, was temporarily restricted.
Parks Canada said no other park or historic site has had a closure due to too many visitors in 2017.
Closed for safety
The closure at Waterton Lakes may have been an inconvenience for some, but Locke Marshall, the visitor experience manager for the park, said it was necessary due to safety concerns for visitors and wildlife.
"It was our biggest day on record, even with the temporary diversion of traffic... We had the most visitors or most cars that we've ever had by quite a significant amount." Marshall said.
Marshall said just under 8,000 visitors came to Waterton Lakes on Sunday.
Automated traffic counters record the number of vehicles coming into the park. Marshall said a formula helps keep track of how many visitors enter the park, based on an average of 2.9 people per vehicle.
Marshall said Waterton Lakes has recorded about an average of 21 per cent more visitors during the Canada 150 free admission promotion.
From January to June last year, there were 174,489 visitors to Waterton Lakes National Park. In 2017, that number rose to 200,571, an increase of 15 per cent.
On the day the park was temporarily closed, that increase could have reached 30 per cent, Marshall said.
Dave Cruickshank, a restaurant owner in Waterton, said he lost about $3,000 in revenue during the brief closure.
Updated 14:40. Parking is close to or at maximum capacity and extremely limited. There are delays on park roads. https://t.co/hXGBoS3NrW— @WatertonLakesNP
Cruickshank said he was frustrated by the closure, adding the park is always full in July and the extra traffic caused by Canada 150 has been "normal."
"The restaurants were overrun, the gift shops were just regular," Cruickshank said. "As far as I can see, they have no real idea of how many people are in town."
"Long weekends have always been busy here"
Unlike Waterton, Banff is unlikely to face a closure, says Greg Danchuk, visitor experience manager for Banff National Park.
"The month of July was only a one per cent increase over last year," Danchuck told Alberta@Noon. "But the long weekends have always been busy here and will continue to be as they are in may national parks."
Banff National Park had just over four million visitors in all of 2016, and the park was bracing for as much as a 25 per cent increase in 2017. But numbers from Parks Canada show only a small increase.
In 2016, from January to June, 1,812,521 people visited Banff National Park. That number has increased only four per cent for the same period this year, to 1,890,298 visitors.
"To date, we've seen about a five per cent increase — 4.7 per cent, to be exact — in visitors through the end of July," Danchuk said.
Even with campgrounds in Banff fully booked since June, Danchuk said the overall number of visitors for July is in line with expected annual increases.
Danchuk said public transit initiatives have played a big part in reducing congestion in Banff during the influx of guests.