British Columbia

Tourism operators anticipate rush as recreational travel ban lifts in B.C.

Recreational travel within B.C. is now allowed for the first time in months — a move welcomed by the tourism industry, small tourism operators and people across the province who have been cooped up since pandemic restrictions kicked in.

70 per cent of tourism revenue disappeared during the pandemic, but boom is expected for summer 2021

A couple holds hands while waiting to cross a street in Vancouver, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Recreational travel within B.C. is now allowed for the first time in months — a move welcomed by the tourism industry, small tourism operators and people across the province who have been cooped up since pandemic restrictions kicked in.

Amber Jensen, who runs the Four Winds Bed and Breakfast on Saturna Island in the Southern Gulf Islands, said the news brings a huge sense of relief after a year of constant ups and downs.

"You'd have your bookings and then two days before people were supposed to be here ... they couldn't come," she said.

"Having it open up and hearing that is very helpful for everyone on the island."

Jensen was able to keep her business semi-operational throughout the pandemic, as her facilities were used by essential workers like builders and service people who came to do repairs on the island.

But she's looking forward to welcoming back regulars who have visited for years and have been forced to stay away.

"I've kept those bookings in the event that we were opening up this year... but now I'm getting [even more] bookings to fill all the holes in the summer," she said.

Jensen, who has run her business for 19 years, says she anticipates a busy year for the tourism sector after a year of pent up demand.

Tourism is a $22 billion industry in B.C., that employed 150,000 people throughout 19,000 tourism businesses before the pandemic, according to Maya Lange with Destination B.C.

COVID-19 travel restrictions notice in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Lange said that around 70 per cent of tourism-related revenue was lost during the pandemic as travel restrictions were brought in and non-essential businesses were shut down. 

"It's been nothing short of devastating, for the entrepreneurs, the families, the communities, the large businesses that employ thousands of people," said Lange.

"We estimate that we will return to 2019 revenue levels in about 2024 — so we're expecting a pretty rapid rise post-pandemic."

Cautious optimism

B.C. didn't enforce travel restrictions until early May 2021, when RCMP introduced road checks to discourage non-essential travel.

Whistler Blackcomb remained open for most of the ski season, and was shut down in March as the resort town became a hotspot for the P1 Brazilian variant. Last summer, Kelowna also became a hotspot for the virus after Canada Day gatherings led to at least 130 new cases.

But with just 277 new cases recorded in B.C. over the weekend and vaccination rates climbing, provincial officials are confident in the re-opening plan. 

"Really, the best thing you can do is book a week-long getaway, instead of a weekend," said tourism minister Melanie Mark on Monday, though visitors from outside the province are still asked to stay away.

Jensen said she anticipates the season could be bright but tough for some operators, who will need to hire staff and prepare facilities while facing unprecedented demand.

Indeed, the BC Ferries website crashed and phone lines were overwhelmed as people rushed to book sailings following the provincial announcement on Monday. Executive director of public affairs Deborah Marshall said they've added extra service for the upcoming Father's Day weekend in anticipation of people wanting to travel between the mainland and islands to see family or go camping.

Around June 25, she said the summer sailing schedule will be posted, and will return to pre-COVID capacity. 

Lange said that while bookings at popular hotspots may fill up fast, she hopes people in B.C. will venture to all corners of the province this summer.

"I think this is going to be an absolutely fantastic summer," she said, saying Destination B.C. has launched a "Be Open to More" campaign to encourage B.C. residents to explore beyond the more well-known locations.

"We know this is just the beginning of recovery."

With files from All Points West

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