BANFF – With the global COVID-19 pandemic delivering a devastating blow to Banff National Park’s tourism economy, businesses are starting to think ahead to recovery when the crisis is over.
Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA) is calling on Parks Canada to waive national park entry fees for two years once the crisis ends and to kick start infrastructure projects in the parks to boost the economy.
“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Canada’s tourism economy,” said Darren Reeder, BLLHA’s executive director, noting it’s becoming clear that economic recovery is months away.
A thriving economy before the coronavirus crisis, Banff National Park was spared the financial struggles in recent years of other Alberta communities reliant oil and agriculture due to record visitation of more than four million visitors a year.
Now, up to 85 per cent of Banff’s workforce has been laid off in the last few weeks and Parks Canada has closed national parks to visitors to help slow the spread of COVID-19, which as of March 31 had killed 11 people In Alberta where there are now 871 confirmed cases.
Ski hills shut down, hotels are hovering at less than three per cent occupancy and retailers have closed up shop, with restaurants only allowed to offer takeout or delivery services under aggressive new provincial measures.
Reeder said it’s important for Parks Canada to start thinking about taking “decisive and bold action” such as providing free entry to national parks for a two-year period to encourage visitors to come back once the pandemic is over.
“There is a very solid track record and evidence that this strategy is effective as demonstrated during our country’s 150th anniversary when Parks Canada places have experienced record levels of visitation,” he said in reference to 2017.
In addition, Reeder said BLLHA is calling on Parks Canada to proceed with a series of public works infrastructure projects to help “re-ignite labour markets and stalling consumer spending.”
“From a national parks perspective, this would be a good time for Parks Canada Agency to reassess its schedule of future capital renewal projects, or to consider new ones for presentation to the government of Canada,” he said.
Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, said the pandemic has taken a toll on the livelihoods of residents and businesses.
“To date, it really has been devastating to our industry, but more importantly to community,” she said.
“Yes, it’s about the economy, but we’ve got to put people first; the long-term viability of our place is based on people.”
Bruce referred to the unemployment rate as “absolutely staggering.”
“It’s heart-breaking for people. We believe we [have] at least 5,000 person layoffs,” said Bruce.
“Across the industry, that is a staggering number. I don’t think there’s anybody in our community who is untouched by this.”
Along with the Town of Banff, BLLT has been advertising for people not to come here during this crisis to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Eventually, Parks Canada shut down the national parks to visitors.
“This is really strange for us … to ask people to do their part and stay home,” said Bruce of a destination marketing organization’s role.
“I think the community of Banff and Lake Louise got to that place very quickly, to help flatten the curve and protect community health and wellbeing as a first priority,” she added.
“This will also protect our ability to rebound once the time comes, to protect our ability to have viable businesses on the other side of this.”
While BLLT is thinking about the future at a cursory level, Bruce said the organization is nowhere near a planning phase yet, noting the biggest unknown is how long this crisis will go on for.
“We’re watching and listening to try to learn if there’s anything that’s solid to start planning around,” she said. “The situation is really so fluid and too difficult to peg things down.”
Bruce said it’s hard trying to figure out what the signals will be for thinking about the future, but finds many people are at least wanting to talk about what recovery looks like.
“A lot of people had to close businesses, layoff staff and some are waiting anxiously for the next phase,” she said.
No matter what happens, economic recovery will require a complex and staged plan.
“It’s not just a matter of turning on marketing and everyone is going to come on back. I don’t believe that’s all there is to it,” said Bruce.
“I tend to be an optimist and I hope there are opportunities when we move to rebound, or recover, on how this could be an opportunity to revise how we do things.”
The Town of Banff is putting out tenders for projects already on the books, and is moving ahead with a planned $9.5 construction project to turn the 200 block of Bear Street into a permanent plaza-like area.
“I really see that this is an important stimulus within our economy,” said Councillor Grant Canning recently.
“This construction project is going to be very disruptive for those business on that street. If there was ever a summer to do a project like this, this is probably the summer.”
The Town of Banff, which has a signed contract with Canmore-based Bremner Engineering, is going into short-term debt to fund the $9.5 million project, which envisions a better balance of the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and low-speed motor vehicles.
A $554,000 communications and marketing plan that aimed to lessen the impact of construction on Bear Street businesses – which had expressed angst about lost revenue – will be scaled back because businesses are closed anyway due to the coronavirus crisis.
Councillor Canning said he realizes there are concerns about taking on more debt during these uncertain times, but noted borrowing rates for the Town of Banff are at some of the lowest ever seen.
“Now is the time to take on debt to do projects like this, not only because of low interests rates, but also because we need all levels of government to continue stimulating our economy and putting people back to work,” he said.
While understanding the importance of thinking about the future, Mayor Karen Sorensen said she and council haven’t had conversations with partner organizations like BLLT and Parks Canada around recovery yet.
“I would say from the Town’s perspective, we’re still very much in dealing with the moment, the situation,” said Mayor Sorensen. “It’s important people know we’re dealing with the crisis.”
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