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Canmore, Banff, Kananaskis key contributors to $25 billion tourism goal

Tourism and hospitality operators in the Bow Valley will be key players in advancing a recently announced provincial tourism strategy with ambitious goals of growing the industry to $25 billion by 2035.

The strategy targets rural tourism growth, increasing transportation and access, diversifying tourism products for year-round opportunities and addressing labour shortages in the sector. It also aims to increase access to capital for Indigenous tourism operators offering authentic experiences.

Tourism Canmore Kananaskis (TCK) CEO Rachel Ludwig said the Bow Valley is well-poised to leverage support for these objectives as major contributors to the province’s visitor economy, which was worth $10.7 billion in 2022.

“I think we have seen recently how that goal for 2035 can happen in sustainable ways and aligned with community values with the [FIS] Cross-Country World Cup, which had a record-breaking attendance, and athletes, teams, officials, spectators stayed in our hotels, enjoyed downtown and contributed to an overall great atmosphere in town,” said Ludwig.

TCK will have data in March on revenue generated from activities associated with the Cross-Country World Cup, which saw about 22,000 visitors to the Canmore Nordic Centre from Feb. 9-13.

A December 2022 Verum Consulting report found between the mountain towns of Canmore, Banff and Jasper, $2.3 billion was generated in visitor expenditures in 2019, contributing to a total of $2 billion in GDP, 23,600 jobs and $308 million in taxes to the economy.

According to Travel Alberta, 47 per cent of international visitor revenue in 2019 was generated in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Overall, the Rockies accounted for about 25 per cent of visitor revenue in the province.

“With overall visitor spending in 2023, compared to 2019 – because that’s really the benchmark that we’re comparing ourselves to considering there was a pandemic in between – we’ve really seen the growth happening exactly where we want it in the shoulder and winter seasons,” said Ludwig.

TCK recorded visitor spending is up 27 per cent from January-May in 2023 compared to 2019. There was a smaller increase of 13 per cent from June-August, and visitor spend was up 66 per cent between October and December. In 2023, there were 4.7 million visitors to Kananaskis. In 2019, there were 4.1 million.

Planning of the new provincial tourism strategy started before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 2021 provincial budget, the Alberta government aimed to double tourism spending to hit more than $16 billion annually in 2030 as part of an ambitious tourism recovery plan. In 2020, the government had forecasted collecting $92 million from the tourism levy, but decreased its expectations for 2021 to $25 million due to the pandemic and an abatement it applied during parts of COVID-19.

In 2021-22, the province collected $59 million from the levy, forecasted $95 million in 2022-23 and estimated it would hit $97 million for 2023-24. The previous provincial budget had a target of $105 million by 2024-25 and $109 million in 2025-26. The levy’s revenue is collected from hotels and other lodgings.

One objective outlined in the new high level 12-page tourism strategy document is to “drive increased private capital for world-class, year-round nature-based tourism experiences, creating sustainable economic opportunities and increasing tourism revenues across the province.”

A goal is to establish year-round resort zones and expand seasonal recreational areas into all-season resorts.

Ludwig said she believes this speaks directly to untapped visitor revenue potential in Canmore and Kananaskis.

“We have many resorts that would benefit from a policy like that. The [Canmore] Nordic Centre is a provincially-owned and operated four-season resort, but then, of course, we also have Silvertip, Fortress Mountain Resort and Nakiska [Ski Resort], which could also all be developed to become year-round resorts.”

She said conferences play a big role in generating revenue during the offseason but event space is lacking.

“We don’t have those big conference spaces, so we are limited in that way,” she said. “So, our overall visitor occupancy typically hovers around the 50 per cent mark between October and April. That’s where we are hoping more growth will happen because that will make it so much easier for our businesses to operate as well. If we have more year-round businesses, we can guarantee year-round employment and I think the benefits will ripple.”

Wanda Bogdane, executive director of Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA), said there is also room to grow in the off-season in Banff National Park.

“With our occupancy statistics, it’s proving there’s ample room still in Banff and Lake Louise to increase visitor spend outside of peak season, and that’s a big focus,” said Bogdane.

“Banff Lake Louise Tourism, they’ve got a strategy that’s based in a vision around this, but for our data, we see even in November, for example, we didn’t even hit 50 per cent occupancy that month.”

Forecast reports by BLLHA show April could see occupancy levels around 56.7 per cent, which is far from peak periods in July and August.

“That shows how much room is still left within the destination in terms of capacity and visitor stays,” she said.

Another pillar of the province's tourism plan is increasing transportation and access – an issue that hits close to home for Kananaskis and Banff, which each see over four million visitors annually on average.

“That’s a real opportunity for our area because we’ve been making huge headway toward transportation solutions, and if the province has articulated this as a primary tourism goal, that’s really good news for us because we’ve already been working really hard in this area,” said Bogdane. “Congestion is a reality, but there are solutions to that.”

The Town of Banff reported hitting its vehicle threshold of 24,000 60 times in July and August 2023 and Roam transit has reported issues with overloaded buses as public transit use grows in Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise.

In Kananaskis, popular trailhead parking lots are often filled past capacity over long weekends and busier times of year to the point the municipal governments of Kananaskis Improvement District and MD of Bighorn are conducting a feasibility study to implement public transit options for the area.

“The growing issue of vehicle congestion and evolving visitor demographics in the Bow Valley highlights the necessity for strong tourism representation in provincial infrastructure planning,” said Darren Reeder, president and CEO of Tourism Industry Association of Alberta, in an email.

“This includes adapting government policies, investing in mass transit solutions, facilitating private and public capital investment needed to sustainably manage visitor flows all in line with the strategy’s goal of incorporating high-priority tourism infrastructure into provincial capital planning efforts.”

Reeder said for communities in the Bow Valley, the strategy is “profound” as it also addresses housing and labour accessibility as key components.

The plan calls for the development of a tourism and hospitality stream as part of the Alberta Advantage Immigration Program – the province’s economic immigration program to attract and retain talented workers and entrepreneurs.

Bogdane said this was “music to our ears” for BLLHA.

“This milestone comes after years of extensive dialogue between BLLHA and government bodies, and we’ve been emphasizing the pivotal economic advantages of transitioning skilled temporary workers into permanent ones, and that’s what this announcement speaks to,” she said.

The new stream nominates people for permanent residence in Alberta under the provincial nominee program, which nominates individuals for permanent residency based on ability to contribute to the economy and meet labour market needs.

“This program will increase the stability and resilience within our destination workforce,” said Bogdane. “It offers employers a chance to retain those skilled personnel they’ve invested in who love it and want to make a home here.”

Bogdane said she was glad to see more focus on expanding Indigenous tourism, as well.

Indigenous tourism is one of five pillars supporting the strategy. It aims to invest in Indigenous entrepreneurs and operators to “support Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs to deliver authentic experiences and share stories of their lands, cultures and peoples.”

Indigenous tourism in Alberta was worth about $166.2 million in GDP pre-COVID-19, according to Indigenous Tourism Alberta. The industry also provided over 3,000 jobs and there were about 125 Indigenous tourism businesses.

ITA’s 2020-24 strategy aims to increase Indigenous tourism in Alberta to pre-COVID-19 numbers by 2024.

Last March, Travel Alberta gave $6 million to ITA to support the industry’s development over three years. It was announced as the largest-ever provincial contribution toward developing and promoting Indigenous-owned tourism experiences.

“This is something obviously Indigenous Tourism Alberta has been working heavily on behind the scenes and with their operators, but there’s still only so much Indigenous tourism product right now that’s available so I expect we’re going to see a lot more ahead,” said Bogdane.

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook