June 17, 2024

Up in Smoke: The Summer Outdoor Season in Canada

Fishing trips to Canada are a tradition for Jeffrey Hardy and his three friends from Vermont. They have, since 2001, been faithful anglers of the northern desert of Quebec, where the walleye are abundant and the cell phone service is not.

This summer, the crisp forest air enchanted by visiting Canadian recreationists has been polluted with smoke as wildfires have torn through millions of acres, blocking roads, destroying campgrounds and forcing tourism operators to scramble during peak seasons. The men’s fishing trip in mid-June was cancelled.

“It was a lot of stress,” said Mr. Hardy, who is from St. Albans, Vt., but has been living and working remotely from Bermuda since the pandemic began. “Everyone was excited to go because Canada was completely shut down for Covid.”

The country’s worst wildfire season on record is straining the outside segments of Canada’s tourism industry at a critical time in its turnaround 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.

The fire season usually lasts from April to September in Canada, and it got off to a rough 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 child. from an asthma attack that it was “worsened by the smoke of a wild fire.” Three firefighters died in separate provinces.

Other than a few days of reduced air quality, wildfires have had little impact on major Canadian cities. The fires are in the northern and more remote regions of the country – regions that have, for years, attracted travelers interested in outdoor experiences.

Federal data compiled by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada show that tourism accounted for two per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product, or 44 billion Canadian dollars, in 2019. Because of strict international border restrictions, the pandemic halved that figure, but it has since returned to 37.8 billion dollars.

Last year, nearly 9.5 million Americans traveled to Canada, with another 3.3 million coming mainly from Britain, Mexico, India, France and China. American travelers are the most important demographic for Canada’s tourism industry, with international visitation rates predicted 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 1.9 billion Canadian dollars from 2018 to 2019 – half of the total spent by international visitors – in the cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

But the wildfires affected other Canadian destinations that are attractive to visitors, such as hiking trails in British Columbia or campgrounds in eastern Ontario and Quebec. Earlier this month, the rain brought some relief to Quebec, perhaps too late.

“For some, the most profitable part of this season is behind them,” said Dominic Dugré, president of Quebec Outfitters, an industry group. About 330 wilderness lodges – like the fishing lodge Mr. Hardy planned to use – have been closed because of the wildfires, which Mr. Dugré estimates has caused revenue losses of more than 10 million Canadian dollars. He said thirty camps and cabins have been burned or damaged.

The Quebec government is offering financial support to businesses injured by wildfires through guaranteed loan programs, amounting to 50 million Canadian dollars.

Repaying debt accumulated over the pandemic is among the biggest concerns for Canadian tourism operators, especially smaller businesses, said Beth Potter, president of the Canadian Tourism Industry Association. The group is urging the government to extend repayment time frames.

In anticipation of increased visitor numbers, and ongoing wildfires, some businesses are rethinking how to adapt their operations.

“That’s the new thing we do as travel agents is promoting outdoor 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 what level of the air quality index they would postpone or cancel a reservation, Mr. Charbonneau said, adding that a recent motorcycle trip was postponed due to road closures from wildfires, reduced air quality and lack of visibility.

About 30,000 Albertans evacuated their homes in May, early in the fire season, which rages on and is now picking up in British Columbia, where the largest number of wildfires are currently burning. This comes two years after a catastrophic heat wave that the the coroner of the province said caused 619 deaths, followed by widespread fires, including one that destroyed the rural town of Lytton, killing two.

Tourism in British Columbia is a major contributor to the province’s gross domestic product – 5 billion Canadian dollars per the latest government figures from 2021 – than the next largest industry in the province, oil, at 4.5 billion dollars. The province has a diverse range of recreational offerings, from the premier ski destination of Whistler to wineries in the Okanagan Valley and kayaking or hiking along the Pacific Coast.

Blackcomb Helicopters, a helicopter and utility tour company based in Whistler, has canceled or rescheduled its sightseeing tours and other offerings, including flights that take 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’s about flying our customers around on sightseeing tours or putting out fires within five, 10 kilometers of our base of operations and the communities we live in,” said Jordy Norris, the company’s tourism director and former wildland firefighter. “We’ve made it very clear to both our staff and our customers that we have an obligation to protect the backyard.”

Some parts of the backyard have gone up in flames.

Darrin Rigo, a videographer and photographer, was filming a waterfall at a recent recreation area, Greer Creek Falls, for a local tourism board in the north of the province. A boardwalk runs through the lush forest, taking visitors to the falls, where the crystal water and perfect sky captured what Mr. Rigo said makes British Columbia’s nature a gem. “We were very excited to send it to our clients and invite people to come and see it,” he said.

Two weeks later, on a community Facebook page, he saw a photo shared by someone of the entrance to the park engulfed in 30-foot flames.

“What happened with Greer Creek was the first time I lost a landmark that was really beautiful, that was close to home,” Mr. Rigo said. “I’m looking at this map of all these fires around us, and I’m pretty sure that’s not the only one.”

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