As a region that is economically driven by tourism, the Bow Valley has experienced a tumultuous 15 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is not the first time our economy has taken a hit due to circumstances beyond our control. In 2001, the September 11 attacks, the SARS outbreak in 2003, the 2008 economic collapse – all affected the way people travel for leisure around the world.
But the pandemic has been the longest crisis faced in our recent past. Now with vaccination rates increasing, case numbers falling, hospitalization rates and intensive care admissions dropping, and phase two of Alberta's reopening plan launching Thursday (June 10) – the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.
While it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of things returning to normal, there has never been a better opportunity to take stock and understand how as an industry and community we can see the return of tourism in a way that addresses issues that existed prior to the pandemic.
Over the past year, the Town of Canmore, for example, has taken the opportunity to establish a task force to have a community conversation about the future of sustainable tourism. The Town of Banff launched a tourism recovery task force as well. Parks Canada, meanwhile, has established a nine-member expert panel to advise the federal agency on overhauling the way visitors access, experience and travel around Banff National Park.
The work of these newly appointed groups is vitally important to the future success of not only the industry, but also our communities. It is time to fully recognize and understand that the social fabric of our towns is intricately tied to economic viability of the industry and vice versa.
How the industry moves forward with its recovery will directly affect our communities. How our communities recover overall to the economic crisis created by the pandemic will also affect how tourism comes back.
We should all be asking ourselves as residents and stewards of this valley what the future of tourism looks like and if we are going to call it “sustainable” tourism –what does that actually mean?
Because if it is just a buzzword and there is no meat on the bones of how we can build back better from the situation we find ourselves in, then we are truly missing out on an opportunity to improve.
Even with the pandemic, this valley has seen a dramatic increase in regional visitation, with provincial recreational opportunities in Kananaskis Country bearing the brunt of it.
It means that without international tourism, we still struggle as a destination with human use management. If we do not collectively take this issue seriously, then we will lose this opportunity to take action during a time when change is not only possible, but is increasingly being called for by conservation groups.
The time has come to understand and recognize there may be thresholds needed to manage overtourism at some of the most popular locations in the Rocky Mountains. This is more than managing access and movement, this is about understanding that congestion and crowding at tourism hotspots is actually a threat to ecological integrity as well.
While this work is being done in our communities at a municipal and federal level, it is important for residents to engage with these task force processes to ensure that local values and vision for the future of this industry that includes our perspectives and insight is achieved.
COVID-19 has been many things over the past 15 months. We hope that includes being an opportunity to do some soul searching and build back this billion dollar industry better than before.