Feeling the burn: B.C. tourism industry hit hard by wildfires

Caravan Theatre has been filling seats and delighting audience on its 80-acre farm for forty years. But over the last two years, audience numbers are slipping.

'We’re a huge province, it is very diverse. And there are many areas that are unaffected'

Cities around B.C. are reporting lower tourism numbers due to wildfires. (Submitted by Tracy Calogheros)

Caravan Theatre has been filling seats and delighting audience on its 32-hectare farm in Armstrong, B.C. for 40 years.

But over the last two summers, audience numbers have slipped. And it's not due to the quality of the shows, says artistic director Estelle Shook with a laugh.

Instead, it's a factor completely out of her control: mother nature's wildfire season. The last two weeks have been particularly bad, Shook said.

"The numbers dropped, the phones stopped ringing. There's been quite a lull in the last two weeks," she said.

Caravan Farm Theatre isn't alone in seeing a drop in tourism, which many B.C. communities rely on in the summer.

Businesses stretching from Prince George to Keremeos are either seeing lower numbers of visitors or say tourists are expressing concerns about the fires and smoke.

"We're experiencing either guests postponing their vacations, shortening their vacations, or looking elsewhere for where they can travel in the province that isn't affected by the wildfires or the smoke," said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C.

Caravan Theatre in Armstrong, B.C. has seen its audience numbers drop by half in recent weeks due to B.C.'s ongoing wildfires. (Caravan Farm Theatre)

This week, at the Caravan Farm Theatre's shows, half the seats were empty. This comes after the first half of its season attracted solid numbers.

But earlier this week, the B.C. government announced a provincewide state of emergency due to the nearly 600 wildfires burning across the province.

Right now, the theatre company is presenting a high-energy, song-and-dance musical with a cast of 15 actors on an outdoor stage while a thick haze of wildfire smoke blankets many regions of the province.

Shook says that, surprisingly, the farm is in a "beautiful, green bowl" where there is less smoke than the rest of the region. But the numbers aren't improving.

"Wildfires in all regions"

Other tourism businesses say they won't know for a few months the total effect the wildfire season had on their operations.

Judas believes travellers and businesses need to prepare for wildfire conditions every year, and to plan for what could possibly become "the new norm."

Despite the state of emergency, Judas noted the province is still open for business.

"We're a huge province, it is very diverse. And there are many areas that are unaffected," he said.

Under a blanket of smoke

However, in Vancouver, a haze of smoke has obscured the city's picturesque mountain backdrop.

Tourism Vancouver spokesperson, Saschie MacLean says the smoke is taking its toll on local businesses, even though the closest large wildfire is more than 130 kilometres away.

MacLean says that visitors are opting not to visit popular view-destinations like Grouse Mountain on the city's North Shore.

Tourism Vancouver is also fielding an increase in calls from American tourists who are planning trips to Vancouver, but who are concerned by the state of emergency.

Maclean said she believes Americans may have the impression that wildfires are affecting the whole province.

With files from Daybreak South and The Early Edition

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