From cowboys to caves, Alberta tourism operators desperate for visitors

Dewy Matthews, a long-time cowboy and horse wrangler in southern Alberta, says his business plan is pretty simple. 'It's all about getting asses in the saddles.' So far this year, he's seen too few, due to the global pandemic.

Wage subsidies, loans, gradual reopening may not be enough to sustain some businesses

Dewy Matthews, owns Anchor D Outfitting near Turner Valley, Alta. The loss of international visitors to his operation will result in a 20-25 per cent reduction in business. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Dewy Matthews, a long-time cowboy and horse wrangler in southern Alberta, says his business plan is pretty simple.

"It's all about getting asses in the saddles."

So far, he's seen too few. Some people who promised to visit his horse riding and backcountry adventure operation had no choice but to cancel when the international borders shut down because of the global pandemic.

Like so many businesses that rely on visitors from near and far, it's been a rough ride. 

Matthews figures he lost at least $20,000 after the cancellation of just two tour groups from Europe — they were planning to saddle up and venture into Kananaskis Country for a week. It's a unique experience and tens of thousands of visitors have passed through since Matthews established Anchor D Guiding and Outfitting 36 years ago.

The tourism industry in Alberta is holding its breath.

Operators aren't sure what to expect, many are hanging on with help from the federal and provincial governments. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the sector has shed more than 71,000 jobs in Alberta. The key to survival for many businesses is the return of international visitors and to convince Albertans to plan a local holiday, to book a hotel room or an excursion. 

Adam Walker shows some of the bones that have been found in Rat's Nest Cave near Canmore. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The Anchor D ranch is located on the edge of Kananaskis Country, 15 kilometres west of Turner Valley.

Matthews says 20 to 30 per cent of his visitors come from outside Canada, and with the border remaining closed until at least July 21, the outlook is grim.

"I think it's pretty much going to be a wash right until September anyway," he said.

He says international bookings generate more revenue because of the length and nature of those excursions, and this year many of those travellers have given up on 2020 and have rebooked for next year.

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It's a short season for his business. The money that's generated during the summer months helps pay the bills and feed his 100 or so horses through the winter.

So with that segment of his business gone, he hasn't been able to hire his usual complement of wranglers and cooks. He's down to about six employees, half the usual number. Matthews says he tapped into the federal wage subsidy that helps businesses pay their employees during the pandemic. The best he's hoping for this year is to break even.

Losses could be substantial

After months of physical distancing and isolation at home, the last place you might think of crawling into is a cave. But that's exactly what Adam Walker wants you to do.

He's the owner of Canmore Cave Tours, where he's been leading groups of adventurous explorers deep into the Rat's Nest Cave in the Bow Valley for more than a decade.

Following a 2½-month closure, he's desperate to welcome guests back, but now under a new set of health and safety restrictions.

Temperature checks, gloves and masks are mandatory. It's almost impossible to maintain physical distancing given the cave's tight nooks and crannies. Shorter tours and smaller groups are the new normal for now. The new measures were the only way Walker could reopen the cave, which is a provincially protected site. 

Amy Willier's family owns and operates Moonstone Creation in Calgary's Inglewood neighbourhood. She predicts the native arts and crafts store could lose up to 25 per cent of its business because of the closure of international borders. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"So we're going to see a pretty substantial impact this summer on operations," he said.

Walker predicts revenues could drop anywhere from 30 to 40 per cent. But it's too early to say. He's counting on the border reopening and Albertans and Canadians to start travelling across the province and country.

"It's very much a wait and see."

Walker says it's a big blow for the sector in Canmore, Kananaskis, Banff and Lake Louise, a key driver for the local and provincial economies.

Not surprisingly, hotel and resort occupancy numbers have plunged since the onset of the pandemic to 12.5 and seven per cent, respectively, in April, the most current month the statistics are available. The trickle-down impact affects restaurants, retail and, of course, tourism operators. 

"You know, even if we see visitation this summer, it won't necessarily mean that everyone will survive this pandemic, unfortunately," said Rachel Ludwig, the operations manager with Tourism Canmore Kananaskis.

Ludwig says the best hope for many operators is that Albertans will come out to visit the Bow Valley this summer. A pressing need she says is more support from the provincial and federal government to get beyond the summer season. Ludwig says many assistance programs for the sector run out at the end of August.

"With the summer we are forecasting, that will not be enough for operators to to survive the long winter," she said.

"For the tourism industry, I think there will be longer term help needed."

Empty hotels

July is typically the busiest month of the year for hotel operators in Calgary. However, the prediction for this summer is bleak.

The Calgary Hotel Association predicts that through July, just one in five rooms will be booked for an average occupancy of 20 per cent, a steep drop from the high-80s that is usually registered during the month. The cancellation of this year's Calgary Stampede is a major factor. There are approximately 13,000 hotel rooms in Calgary.

"Twenty per cent occupancy, on average in the month of July, is quite possible and unfortunate," said Sol Zia, the association's executive director.

Some hotels, particularly in the downtown, have yet to reopen and won't until July 2. 

The association says at least two hotels in Calgary, one in the downtown and one in the northeast, have closed permanently as a result of the pandemic. The association declined to identify the properties.

He says local bookings are important for operators.

"There's actually a number of hotels that have very strong offers out there for those who want a staycation, including dining options and access to facilities that have reopened, such as fitness centres and swimming pools," said Zia.

Local merchants lose out

The cancellation of this year's Stampede will trickle down to hundreds of businesses that cater to international visitors who would have poured into the city for the annual festival. 

Amy Willier, who manages Moonstone Creation, a family business in Inglewood, expects to take a 20 to 25 per cent hit in sales and revenues from the loss of the Stampede and the closure of the Canada-U.S. border. 

Simon Harvie, general manager of Mount Engadine Lodge in Kananakis, says there's been a positive response from Albertans since the resort started accepting bookings May 16. (Google Meet)

The store focuses on native arts and crafts, with a focus on beaded art. Willier says Calgarians often only come into the store with someone who is visiting from outside the country. She's says now is the time for locals to shop local.

"It's not just now because of COVID-19, but always promote your neighbour, promote your friend, promote their local business," said Willier.

More support not guaranteed

Alberta Tourism Minister Tanya Fir says the government has taken steps to help tourism operators, including the cancellation of this year's tourism levy, which had to be paid to government, and a $5,000 grant for business owners to help cover costs. The details of that program are still being finalized. 

"The biggest thing that we're hearing from them is the need for liquidity, the need for cash in their pocket," said Fir.

A small group of visitors make their way to Rat's Nest cave. Canmore Cave Tours offers a discount to local residents to spur business following a 10-week closure related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

She says the government has also moved to prevent landlords from evicting their commercial tenants for non-payment of rent. Fir says Travel Alberta is also launching a staycation campaign to encourage Albertans to holiday close to home.

She says those programs will be assessed and discussions will continue with the industry, but no further programs are expected. 

"When and if further support measures need to be introduced, that's something that we may look at, but I can't say for certain," said Fir.

Relaunch, recover

Fir says that since the pandemic started, the province has had to make some adjustments to the government's 10-year tourism strategy, which had an ambitious goal to double tourism spending in the province to $20 billion by 2030.  

"We're just repositioning it to response, recovery and rebuild."

That's what Simon Harvie is hoping to do. He's the general manager of Mount Engadine, a 14-room backcountry lodge in Spray Lakes Provincial Park in Kananaskis that features cabins, rooms and glamping tents.

He just started taking bookings again and he wasn't sure what the response would be since up to 65 per cent of his guests during the summer are international visitors.

"The summer has filled up really quickly from all local and provincial bookings, which is fantastic," said Harvie.

He says guests are saying that after two to three months of lockdown and isolation, they're eager to book a getaway — and particularly at a smaller resort or hotel where they feel there's a lower health risk.

"They're looking for more secluded, intimate getaways … people feel safer in those smaller hotels, lodges, boutique hotels and backcountry lodges to have those getaways," said Harvie.

"The bookings have blown my thoughts out of the water, blown any expectations out of the water."

All his guests so far are from Alberta. It could be a glimpse into the future for the industry, says Anchor D's Dewy Matthews.

"I'm thinking this is going to be the new normal, and this is what's going to help make it work more than anything this year," he said.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.