British Columbia

A summer with no foreign travellers concerns Squamish businesses, but fall uncertainty is downright scary

The big Valentine’s Day reopening of the Sea-To-Sky Gondola is Squamish, B.C., was an exciting return to normalcy for general manager Kirby Brown.

Mayor Karen Elliott says businesses will need government help to get them through the lean months

The Sea to Sky gondola in Squamish, B.C., on July 21, 2019. The attraction reopened on Valentine's Day after it had been vandalized, but was forced to close again shortly afterwards due to COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The big Valentine's Day reopening of the Sea-To-Sky Gondola is Squamish, B.C., was an exciting return to normalcy for general manager Kirby Brown.

Six months earlier, someone cut the main gondola cable, causing $10 million in damage and forcing the operation to lay off 75 seasonal staff.

On Feb.14, Brown was ecstatic to be back in business and had no idea how temporary that feeling would be. A month later COVID-19 hit, causing the gondola to once again close in mid-March.

"That was pretty glorious for us to be back up and running," he said. "It was a really tough thing to shut down again."

The gondola reopened May 22, albeit at limited capacity due to physical distancing rules. Brown says he's grateful to be open, but visitors are way down compared to last year.

Sea-to-Sky Gondola General Manager Kirby Brown says about 70 per cent of his visitors come from outside B.C. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

The pandemic has also been rough on Squamish's restaurants, gift shops and other businesses that depend on summer tourism to keep them afloat through the rest of the year.

Mayor Karen Elliott expects they'll benefit from a boost in travellers as soon as the B.C. government encourages travel within the province, but the community's long-term economic health is uncertain.

"This isn't just about getting them through the summer," Elliott said. "What happens in the shoulder season? What happens this winter if we're not opening the province to international visitors?"

Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott says tourism-dependent businesses will need government help to help them get through the fall. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Seasonal work

Business is down by about 50 per cent compared to last year at Aerial Kiteboarding School but owner Daniel Grains is just happy to be open again.

Kiteboarding usually starts in March but he remained closed for three months due to the pandemic, which was a major financial hit to both his business and his staff.

In order to make it through the winter months, Grains says, he'll need to capitalize on what's left of the season.

"It would be nice if the province did a push toward inviting people from different places," he said.  "Maybe some kind of incentive from different tourism boards? That could be great."

Aerial Kiteboarding School owner Daniel Grains says business is down by about 50 per cent compared to this time last year. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Still, Grains and Brown worry about what will happen after the summer tourists go home.

"Wage subsidies and other programs make all the difference when overall travel is still really restricted," Brown said.

"It's going to be important for us to see some of those supports continue through the winter."

Elliott says she's had conversations with her provincial and federal counterparts about extending wage subsidy programs into the fall and winter.

In the meantime, she's optimistic that Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry will soon determine that it's safe for British Columbians to visit her community.

"Saying to folks in the Lower Mainland, 'please don't visit,' was tremendously hard, but it was the right thing to do," Elliott said.

"Now, we're really just waiting for the province and we're very focused on getting our tourism operators ready to receive visitors."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

About the Author

Jesse Johnston worked in private radio from 2004 to 2014 in Vancouver, Red Deer and Calgary. He spent the next five years based out of Surrey (his hometown) as CBC's South of the Fraser reporter until he joined the Impact Team in 2019. Jesse is a two-time recipient of the RTDNA Dave Rogers Award for Best Short Radio Feature. He loves radio, running and dogs. He also loves the Detroit Lions, but if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that. @Jesse_Johnston

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