British Columbia

Kootenay ski resort operators gear up for uncertainty during this winter's season

British Columbia's famed ski resorts and lodges are taking a close look at how summer tourist operators are faring as they prepare their own pandemic survival strategies for the upcoming winter season. 

The $1.4 billion industry is preparing for major modifications in the face of COVID-19

Ski operators across B.C. are preparing for a drastically different season due to COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

British Columbia's famed ski resorts and lodges are taking a close look at how summer tourist operators are faring as they prepare their own pandemic survival strategies for the upcoming winter season. 

The province's ski sector brings in over $1.4 billion every season, according to a 2014 Destination B.C. study funded by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. 

From closed borders to measures to prevent the spread of the virus, the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic will alter how ski operations run this season.

Andrew Kyle, owner of Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson, B.C., says they will re-open — with more physical distancing and mask protocols in place in indoor spaces.

"People are going to see a way different kind of controls in the inside spaces, but other than that, people will still be able to ski and enjoy the outdoors," Kyle said. 

Andrew Kyle, the owner of Whitewater Ski Resort, in Nelson, B.C. is preparing for new protocols on the hill due to COVID-19. (Bob Keating/CBC)

Whistler Blackcomb is taking a similar approach. The U.S.-based company that owns the popular ski resort says anyone hoping to hit the slopes during the COVID-19 pandemic will have to reserve in advance, and access to the mountain will not be granted without some kind of face covering.

Kyle says another challenge for his resorts and others will be getting seasonal workers. Much of the industry relies on foreign workers — primarily those from the U.K. or Australia — which will be limited due to international travel restrictions. Resorts in Alberta are already actively recruiting locals to fill up these positions. 

Many operations are also looking to locals to fill the gap left by a lack of international travellers as borders are expected to remain closed.

Phil Pinfold, who runs a backcountry helicopter ski operation called Retallack Lodge between Kaslo and New Denver with co-owner Chris McNamara, is hoping to do just that.

"We're in a lucky spot here, that we have a huge Canadian base to begin with, so I absolutely think there's an opportunity to fill our operation with just Canadian clients," said Pinfold. 

Retallack Lodge, located between New Denver and Kaslo, ran bike trips this summer to test COVID-19 protocols. (Submitted by Retallack Lodge )

The duo has come up with pandemic prevention kits containing a mask and hand sanitizer for all guests. They also tested physical distancing protocols at their lodge with mountain bikers this summer.

But for other helicopter and snowcat skiing operators in the Kootenays, who rely on up to 95 per cent foreign clientele for their business, it's shaping up to be a difficult season.

Salina Riemer is with Canadian Mountain Holidays, which operates 12 heli-skiing lodges and relies heavily on international travel for their revenue.

Riemer says they are planning as best as they can. 

"If Europe opens, that is a huge part of our customer base," she said. "And we're hoping to get a lot more Canadians".

As winter approaches, Whitewater's Kyle offers a pragmatic response in the face of pandemic uncertainty.

"Everyone will have to deal with it."

With files from Bob Keating

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