Up in smoke: Canada’s outdoor summer season
By Vjosa Isai
Fishing trips to Canada are a tradition for Jeffrey Hardy and his three friends from Vermont. They have, since 2001, been anglers loyal to Quebec’s northern wilderness, where the walleye are plentiful and the cellphone service is not.
This summer, the crisp forest air coveted by recreationists visiting Canada was instead polluted with smoke as wildfires have torn through millions of acres, blocking roads, destroying campgrounds and forcing tourism operators to scramble during peak season. The men’s mid-June fishing trip was canceled.
“It was a big letdown,” said Hardy, who is from St. Albans, Vermont, but has been living and working remotely from Bermuda since the pandemic began. “Everybody was excited to go because Canada had been shut down for all of COVID.”
The country’s worst wildfire season on record is straining the outdoor segments of Canada’s tourism industry at a crucial time in its rebound from years of pandemic travel restrictions. Of the 28.6 million acres that have burned across the country so far, more than 11.6 million acres were in Quebec, the most of any province, according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
Fire season typically runs from April to September in Canada, and had an intense start this year with mass evacuations in Alberta and Nova Scotia in May, followed by Quebec, and parts of northern Ontario. In central British Columbia, where the wildfires are picking up intensity, the coroner’s office is investigating the death of a 9-year-old from an asthma attack that it said was “aggravated by wildfire smoke.” Three firefighters have died in separate provinces.
Other than some days of reduced air quality, major Canadian cities remain largely unaffected by wildfires. The fires are in the country’s northern and more remote regions — regions that, in years past, have drawn travelers who are interested in outdoor experiences.
Federal data compiled by the Tourism Industry Association Canada shows that tourism represented, in 2019, a 2% share of Canada’s gross domestic product, or 44 billion Canadian dollars. Because of rigid international border restrictions, that figure was halved by the pandemic, but has since rebounded to C$37.8 billion.
Last year, close to 9.5 million Americans traveled to Canada, and another 3.3 million came mainly from Britain, Mexico, India, France and China. American travelers are the most important demographic for Canada’s tourism industry, with international visitation rates forecast to recover by 2026, and tourism spending by 2024, according to Destination Canada, a government-owned marketing organization.
In a recent report, the organization said visitors spent C$1.9 billion from 2018 to 2019 — half of the total spent by international visitors — in the cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
But other Canadian destinations attractive to visitors, like hiking trails in British Columbia or campgrounds in eastern Ontario and Quebec, have been affected by the wildfires. Earlier this month, rains brought some relief to Quebec, perhaps too late.
“For some, the most profitable portion of this season is behind them,” said Dominic Dugré, president of the Quebec Outfitters, an industry group. About 330 wilderness outfitters — like the fishing lodge Hardy planned to use — were temporarily closed because of the wildfires, putting revenue losses at more than C$10 million, Dugré estimates. Thirty or so camps and cabins, he added, have burned or were damaged.
The Quebec government is offering businesses hurt by the wildfires financial support through guaranteed loan programs, totaling C$50 million.
Repayment for debt accumulated over the pandemic is among the top concerns for Canadian tourism operators, especially smaller businesses, said Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. The group is urging the government to extend repayment time frames.
In anticipation of increasing visitor volumes, and ongoing wildfires, some businesses are rethinking how to adapt their operations.
“That’s going to be the new thing that we do as travel agents who are promoting an outdoor-type recreation as a tourism opportunity,” said Renée Charbonneau, executive director of the Canadian Motorcycle Tourism Association, based in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
The association’s nonprofit travel agency is considering creating a questionnaire for customers to indicate at which level of the air quality index they would postpone or cancel a booking, Charbonneau said, adding that a recent motorcycle tour was postponed because of road closures from the wildfires, reduced air quality and a lack of visibility.
About 30,000 Albertans were evacuated from their homes in May, early in the fire season, which has continued to rage on and is now picking up in British Columbia, where there is currently the greatest number of wildfires burning. This comes two years after a devastating heat wave that the province’s coroner said caused 619 deaths, followed by widespread fires, including one that destroyed the rural town of Lytton, killing two people.
Tourism in British Columbia is a greater contributor to the province’s gross domestic product — C$5 billion per the latest government figures from 2021 — than the province’s next largest industry, oil, at C$4.5 billion. The province has a diverse array of recreational offerings, from the major ski destination of Whistler to wineries in the Okanagan Valley and kayaking or hiking along the Pacific coast.
Blackcomb Helicopters, a helicopter tour and utilities company based in Whistler, has canceled or rescheduled its sightseeing excursions and other offerings, including flights that bring picnickers to remote alpine lakes, or mountain bikers to summits. The company is using most of its fleet on the firefighting effort until at least early August.
“It comes down to the question of flying our customers around on sightseeing tours or putting out fires within 5, 10 kilometers of our bases of operations and the communities that we live in,” said Jordy Norris, the company’s tourism director and a former wildland firefighter. “We made it pretty clear to both our staff and our customers that we have a duty to protect the backyard.”
Some parts of the backyard have gone up in flames.
Darrin Rigo, a videographer and photographer, was recently filming a waterfall at a recreational site, Greer Creek Falls, for a local tourism board in the northern part of the province. A boardwalk runs through the lush forest, taking visitors to the falls, where the crystal water and perfect sky captured what Rigo said makes British Columbia’s nature a gem. “We were so excited to send it off to our clients and invite people to come see it,” he said.
Two weeks later, on a community Facebook page, he saw a photo someone had shared of the entrance to the park engulfed in 30-foot flames.
“What happened with Greer Creek was my first time losing a landmark that was really beautiful, that was close to home,” Rigo said. “I’m looking at this map of all these fires around us, and I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be the only one.”