As the majority of national parks opened earlier this month, Nick Schlachter was waiting in his truck at the front of the line to access Banff National Park’s Lake Minnewanka, a picturesque glacial lake surrounded by towering mountains and lush forests near Banff, Alta.
He couldn’t wait for the park to open for the first time this season and get his boat on the open water.
“It’s been a long three months. Everyone has been cooped up, and it’s time to get out and get some lake trout,” said Schlachter, who lives in Canmore, Alta. “It’s time to go.”
The lake is a tourist magnet, but this year, the water will be noticeably quieter, as will the nearby bike paths, cafe and campground.
With international visitors staying away due to the pandemic and border restrictions, this will be a summer like no other and presents an opportunity for Canadians to rediscover the many world-renowned attractions and locations, such as Banff, Montreal and Victoria.
Montreal and Victoria
Normally, the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal are jammed this time of year with slow-moving crowds of people stopping to snap photos with tablets and selfie sticks held high in the air.
The thought of navigating so many people is a strong deterrent for most locals to keep out of the area. Now, it might be refreshing to take a stroll through the greystone buildings and appreciate the Notre-Dame Basilica and other historical beauties.
The same can be said for cities such as Victoria, which won’t see temporary population spikes as cruise ships dock and hundreds of thousands of travellers pour out into the city.
Enjoy tourist-free situation
No matter the location, with so much space and privacy, this summer could be much more romantic, too, said travel blogger Karen Ung, pointing to how restaurants and campgrounds have reduced capacity.
She plans to take advantage of the tourist-free situation by spending more time in Banff than usual and exploring the Icefields Parkway, north of Lake Louise, which usually fills up with tourists who want to explore the glaciers.
“There’s so much here, and people come from all over the world to see it,” she said.
“It’s often way too packed for us to enjoy it, so I really avoid those places in the summer.”
Steep price for tourist sector
Earlier this spring, Banff’s mayor acknowledged it was “odd” for a community that solely relies on the tourism industry to tell people to stay away because of the pandemic.
Now, the doors have swung open.
“We’re so excited to welcome everyone back. We know that Canadians have always wanted to enjoy their national parks,” said Mayor Karen Sorensen.
While there is a rare tourist-free opportunity this summer, the lack of international visitors comes at a steep cost for the tourism industry.
For instance, the business community in Banff expects revenue of between 30 and 40 per cent compared to last year, according to the mayor.
Banff National Park usually attracts about four million people a year, and more than half the visitors are from outside Canada.
“As you can see, we don’t have anyone in the store at the moment,” said Michelle Murphy of Rocks and Gems Canada, a jewelry and fossil store in Banff. “We get it in dribs and drabs, but we need that customer base.”
‘Matter of mitigating our losses’
Around the corner from her shop is Coyotes Southwestern Grill, which can only seat a maximum of 20 customers because of health restrictions mandating physical distancing.
It’s a stressful time in the industry, said chef and part-owner Lucas Johnson, as many restaurants rack up debt or slowly burn through their savings.
“We are mentally and hopefully, financially prepared to push through,” he said. “We realize we are not going to make a buck until next summer. It’s just going to be a matter of mitigating our losses between now and then, month by month.”
Many in the tourism industry see the reopening of the economy as a new beginning. While it may be trying times right now, the situation should improve as border restrictions eventually begin to ease.
“We are encouraging people to come out of lockdown, come out of their city centre and come into the big wide open spaces,” said David Roberts, general manager of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and regional vice-president with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
These destinations may not hear the variety of languages to which they’ve become accustomed as they’ve welcomed travellers from Japan, Germany and dozens of other countries.
But those in the tourism business are eager to hear folks from across the country, if inter-provincial travel restrictions are eased. Banff’s mayor is excited, too.
“We’re now hoping that Canadians will take that big Canadian road trip with the family and come visit us here,” Sorensen said.