Local tourism operators are hopeful a strong bear-viewing season in September will provide some reprieve from the last very disappointing couple of months (Michael Wigle photo)

Reservations down by 85 percent as Valley tourism hit hard by wildfires

Tourism businesses in the Bella Coola Valley have been hit hard by the wildfire situation

Tourism businesses in the Bella Coola Valley have been hit hard by the wildfire situation that so far shows no sign of slowing down. Hot, dry weather has been the norm for many regions across the province, including Bella Coola, and smoky conditions have only added to the misery.

“From a recent BCVT membership survey, roughly 85 percent of reservations were canceled across the board,” said Tom Hermance, President of Bella Coola Valley Tourism. “Fortunately, larger businesses were able to fill some of those cancellations. As a small accommodations owner [Float House Inn], we were fully booked in July and August but since the road closed July 7th, we haven’t had a customer.”

Highway 20 was closed for over two weeks. It has since re-opened, but many travelers remain wary, something BCVT is trying hard to overcome.

“We’re hopeful reservations will continue to stabilize. Our biggest challenge now is to get the word out that the roads leading to Bella Coola are open, and as safe and dependable as anywhere else in BC,” said Hermance. “Unfortunately, there is a misconception among some potential visitors that Highway 20 is somehow compromised or a gamble to drive. Of course that’s not true, and BCVT is working hard to dispel those fears.”

Many travelers are avoiding road travel in B.C. this summer, and Bella Coola is no exception. Destination BC, the province’s main tourism marketing force, has also been working hard to get travelers out despite the fluctuating situation across provincial highways.

“While our province is currently under a state of emergency to ensure that the impacted areas get everything they need in terms of support, the rest of the province is very much open for business in terms of travel and tourism,” said Maya Lange, vice president of global marketing at Destination BC. “Safety is our top priority and we’re encouraging in-province visitors and those with travel plans to check our website for various planning and emergency resources available.”

Early estimates in the Cariboo Chicotin region have about 147 tourism businesses currently evacuated, said Amy Thacker, CEO of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association.

“We do not have an estimate in terms of business lost or revenue lost,” Thacker said. “It is too early to tell now, but we are working with our provincial government to provide updates as we receive confirmations from our stakeholders.”

Hermance conceded that visits to the Information Centre are also down significantly.

“The Visitor Centre saw 471 tourists during the month of July last year. This year it was 162,” said Hermance. “But it also looks like quite a number of visitors are changing their reservations to next year.”

While July has certainly been a loss so far, Hermance remains optimistic for the remainder of the season; especially September where numbers have been steadily increasing every year due to the popular bear viewing season.

“Seeing that bears and salmon are the Valley’s most popular draws, everything seems to indicates that bear-guide operators should meet or exceed last year’s numbers for September,” he said.

While no official financial relief has been announced to date, the province has set up a hotline for affected businesses. Hermance is encouraging all operators to ensure the province understands the effect the season has had on tourism and its related businesses. The CCRD is also conducting a business impacts survey and expects to have the results by mid-September.

“There is a hotline through BCEDA for business owners to call and ask for advice or address concerns,” he said. “It’s important that the government knows how local tourism was effected by these wildfires. At this time, I haven’t see any financial relief proposed.”