At One of Canada’s Top Destinations, Tourists Are Back but Much Has Changed
A little over a year had passed since my last visits to the Alberta mountain towns of Banff and Canmore, and the contrast was startling. After a protracted pandemic-induced absence, tourists were back.
Most of the tourists flocking to Banff National Park this summer are Canadians.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times
An old and tricky problem was also back with a vengeance in Banff: too many cars. Even though the town introduced paid parking on its streets and at lots downtown, I was warned this week that finding a spot there would probably be an exercise in frustration.
So I dutifully followed a series of helpful signs leading to free parking by the town’s rustic, 112-year-old train station, about an eight-minute walk or a shuttle bus ride away from Banff’s core. The main parking lot there was completely packed. My heart sank further when I drove through a relatively new, auxiliary lot nearby with 500 more spaces. Only at its farthest end did I find a half-dozen empty spots.
Banff National Park, the draw for the towns of Banff and Canmore, is, of course, one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations. This week it released some numbers confirming the rebound. Last month the park had 694,127 visitors, the largest July attendance in almost a decade. And from April through the end of July, about 230,000 more people visited than during the same period last year.
But when I made my way through the crowds in town with David Matys of the Banff and Lake Louise tourism authority, it became apparent that many things had not returned to their prepandemic state.
One of the most obvious was the comparative lack of buses carrying overseas tourists. Mr. Matys told me that in 2019, Canadians made up about 60 percent of the crowd, while about 25 percent were American, and the remaining 15 percent were people from the rest of the world. This year, the breakdown is 90 percent Canadians, with Americans making up a vast majority of the remainder.
“People started getting outdoors more during Covid or wanting to be outdoors,” Mr. Matys said as we strolled down Banff Avenue, the main street, which ends at the park’s iconic administration building. “And I think that desire is carrying on.”
As was the case everywhere, some businesses in Banff didn’t survive the pandemic. But the number of empty shops is nothing like what I saw during a recent trip to Edmonton.
In Banff, the increase in Canadian visitors, particularly from Western Canada, has had an unusual effect. Driving in from the Trans-Canada Highway in the middle of this week, I was surprised to see many hotels advertising vacant rooms in peak season. Regional visitors, Mr. Matys explained, either come for the day or don’t stay as long, leaving rooms empty.
But the pandemic has had some positive effects. Much of Banff Avenue was closed for pedestrians during the pandemic and, so far, has remained that way. Parks Canada is also continuing to close a nearby highway for cyclists, if for less of the season. And Mr. Matys pointed out various businesses that used the Covid lull to refurbish their buildings.
He said the pandemic had also helped advance efforts to limit overcrowding during peak season.
“We don’t have a people problem,” he said, “we have a car problem.”
Among the proposals for encouraging people to leave their cars behind is a plan from the company that holds the lease on the railway station. It is proposing to resume regular train service between Calgary and Banff with stops at seven other locations along the way.
Like elsewhere, one of the most pressing problems with the return of tourists has been finding workers to serve them in hotels, restaurants and shops. Compounding the issue has been a lack of young people from Australia and New Zealand in the country on special two-year visas that allow them to work.
“I don’t know if everyone just evaporated or what happened during Covid, but we can’t find people at any level,” Sky McLean, the chief executive of Basecamp Resorts, told me. “Everything from housekeepers to front desk to accountants to carpenters on the construction site to full-blown executives at head office.”
Basecamp, which will open a new hotel in Banff this year and also has several properties in Canmore and elsewhere near the park, had to close rooms at points during the pandemic and sometimes relied on head office staff to pitch in and clean rooms. More recently, Ms. McLean hired recruiters to come up with a longer-term plan.
“It’s the biggest struggle in the industry right now,” she said. “But I’ll take anything over the pandemic.”
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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