B.C.'s $300-million-per-year heli-ski industry ramped up in December to meet surging foreign demand, but a surge in COVID-19 cases is bringing some operations to a halt.
While operators were confident they had a robust safety plan in place, guests began testing positive for COVID-19 within weeks.
Since December at least 12 guests and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 on heli-sports trips in B.C., CBC News has learned. At least two heli-ski operations paused business temporarily to deal with cases.
"Omicron has caught this sector a little bit by surprise," said Ross Cloutier, president of the 40-member HeliCat Canada, the trade organization representing helicopter and snowcat ski operations.
The heli-ski season runs five months every year from mid-December to the end of April and employs 3,000 staff. According to HeliCat Canada, around 44,000 heli-skiers hit B.C.'s remote mountain slopes every year.
Small groups of skiers are flown by helicopter to the starting point of their ski run on a mountaintop or transported via snowcat, a massive vehicle designed to operate on snow, which can carry up to 12 guests. A three-run day package starts at about $1,000 per person, up to about $14,000 for a more luxurious private package.
On Dec.19 Mike Wiegele Heli-Skiing Resort in Blue River, B.C., near the Cariboo, Monashee and Rocky Mountain ranges, posted on social media about how the rise in COVID-19 cases were affecting business. Wiegele closed operations until Jan. 1, 2022 after two guests and 9 staff tested positive.
Despite all being vaccinated and tested, COVID-19 infections left guests isolating under resort doctor supervision.
Earlier in December Banff-based CMH Heli-Skiing temporarily paused operations at one B.C. lodge when an undisclosed number of guests and staff tested positive.
Around the same time one ski guide at Bella Coola Heli Sports tested positive. Fearing further spread, skiing was shut down for a half-day as staff were tested but came up negative.
"Ski business is volatile even under good conditions, but the past 22 months with the pandemic are unprecedented," said Beat Steiner, CEO of Bella Coola Heli Sports.
There are now worries the fifth wave of the pandemic, driven by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, will result in another lost season for adventure tourism operators, who are often booked at least a year in advance.
According to HeliCat Canada, about 90 per cent of heli-ski customers are non-Canadian.
Scott Benton, who heads the Wilderness Tourism Association, fears some of member businesses may not survive.
"People are anxious. With COVID there is always a risk," he said. "The minute you have a problem you have to have a plan in place. It's particularly challenging when you have overnight trips because you are responsible for those people until they go home."
'Operating very tenuously'
According to HeliCat Canada's Cloutier, operators lost close to a third of their profits during the 2019-20 season due to border closures — and now flight cancellations are threatening them again.
He's worried any additional restrictions officials put in place will be detrimental to companies and the communities they support.
"The demand is huge. These [heli-ski operations] are big contributors to rural communities in B.C., like Nakusp and New Denver," Cloutier said. "[Heli-ski operators] are nervous. They are operating very tenuously and incredibly carefully."
Cloutier said companies have adapted to the uncertain times with COVID-19 safety measures such as keeping guests masked and separated. All transport vehicles are well ventilated by keeping windows open or using on-board ventilation systems.
Cloutier said that foreign skiers undergo stringent COVID-19 testing and are required to produce a negative polymerase chain reaction test (PCR) within 72 hours of boarding their flight to Canada, and a second PCR test required upon arrival.
Even though they are not required, Cloutier and other heli-ski operators said that resorts are using rapid tests on staff and guests once they arrive to keep them safe.
'We could do a better job'
Renata Lewis, an emergency doctor with mountain search and rescue expertise, helps develop COVID-19 safety plans for heli-ski operators.
She said that resorts should be doing more to protect staff and guests now that case number are rising.
"We are seeing levels of immunity starting to deteriorate coming into winter, and yet, mitigating programs were not in place at their maximum potential. We could do a better job of screening individuals," said Lewis.
Cloutier says easier access to rapid antigen tests would help. He would like the province to provide them more readily.
"We pay every year $15 million to $20 million in provincial tax so whatever it costs the province to keep us open is economically worth it for them. So if that means get us tests, then that's the thing that makes the most sense."
Some other provinces and other jurisdictions around the world offer free rapid tests for anyone who wants them as a way to help limit the spread of infections. Currently the only way for most people in B.C. to get the tests is to buy them online.
The Ministry of Health declined to comment on the challenges the B.C.'s heli-ski industry is facing during the pandemic.