Wildfires have displaced residents and restricted travel in some areas across Canada this summer just as the country looks to revive tourism business after years of pandemic-related restrictions.
It’s the latest climate-related disruption that some industry players worry will mar the country’s reputation as a hub for tourism.
Wildfires in British Columbia and Northwest Territories in the month of August, which followed blazes across Ontario, Quebec and the east coast in the spring, have sent thousands of residents fleeing from their homes and disrupted many businesses during the busy summer travel season.
Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), says that the group’s focus in the midst of the crisis is on the safety of residents, business operators and travellers in communities affected by the wildfires.
However, she notes that for tourism businesses that were counting on this summer for a critical rebound from impacts tied to COVID-19 restrictions, the wildfires are cutting that recovery short.
“We are not back yet operating at 100 per cent. We have not recovered from the lack of business over the last few years because of restrictions related to the pandemic,” Potter tells Global News. “Additional crisis situations like wildfires and extreme weather are just impeding our ability to make that return to business as usual.”
The ongoing devastation on the west coast prompted B.C. premier David Eby to issue a temporary ban on travel to areas affected by the wildfires last week. The ban was lifted for West Kelowna on Friday and other regions earlier in the week as the province said enough accommodations had been secured for the roughly 30,000 residents displaced from their homes.
Flights are also starting to resume to the Central Okanagan area a week after they were halted.
Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., told the Canadian Press this week that while it’s too soon to say how severe the impact of wildfire disruptions and associated bans will be on businesses, “August is typically the busiest month for visitors.”
Many operators are struggling not only with a direct hit to their businesses amid wildfire impacts, but with communication concerns, Potter notes.
Even tourist sites in areas that are not directly impacted by wildfires are having to reach out to international visitors to clarify that it’s safe to travel as news of the ongoing fires in Canada, Greece and Hawaii dominate headlines, she says.
The record wildfire season is just the latest extreme weather disruption to hit Canadian provinces this summer as Nova Scotia recovers from flooding last month and damaging storms tore through Ottawa.
Canadian wildfires and the associated smoke travelling south of the border and even across the Atlantic Ocean have made headlines internationally.
Climate-related disruptions are putting the reputation of Canada’s tourism industry at risk, Potter says, which “jeopardizes that vital economic engine.”
“One of our biggest concerns right now is the reputational issues that we could be suffering from,” she says.
Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, agrees that the country’s status as a tourist destination could be at risk in the long term thanks to regular impacts from climate change.
The tourism industry in Canada typically represented around two per cent of the country’s gross domestic product before the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Antunes says that, on a national basis, tourism isn’t as vital to the country as some Caribbean nations, for example, it can have an outsized impact on some resort towns in Canada like the ones that are affected by the B.C. travel ban.
“We’re going to see, essentially, people not wanting to come to visit Canada in those areas that are most affected,” he says.
Potter says that many businesses are turning their attention to how they can build up their resilience to extreme weather, and that TIAC is having conversations with governments about building up infrastructure to adapt to new climate realities.
Among the biggest financial disruptions for businesses beset by wildfires and flooding is securing proper insurance coverage.
Experts who spoke to Global News this week said that climate change is likely to see insurance premiums soar for coverage related to natural disasters.
“Insurance actually started to become a real big problem for our industry when the pandemic hit. And that challenge is continuing to grow,” Potter says. “It’s become unwieldy, it’s incredibly costly, and it’s going to have a direct impact on whether a business can afford to open or not.”
She says TIAC is having conversations with the governments now about setting parameters for insurance coverage.
Potter calls on Canadians who might themselves patronize wineries in the Okanagan or other tourist destinations seeing their busy season put on hold by the wildfires: don’t forget us when the fires are out.
“Support your neighbours and make your plans to visit where you couldn’t visit this year as these jurisdictions and destinations rebuild from what has been a challenging summer,” she says.
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola, Nathaniel Dove and The Canadian Press
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