COVID-19 a 'devastating blow' to mountain towns that rely on tourism

CALGARY — The COVID-19 pandemic has walloped tourism-dependent mountain towns by cutting short what had been shaping up to be a great ski season in Western Canada.

At the same time, there are concerns too many people are heading to wilderness trails and that regional hospitals can't cope with a potential surge in novel coronavirus cases among outsiders.

A normal March afternoon in downtown Revelstoke, B.C., would be "absolute pandemonium" with skiers and snowboarders looking for a meal or some drinks, said Mayor Gary Sulz.

"All the streets would be full. There would be no place to park," he said.

Not so, this past week.

"Pretty much all of our downtown merchants have closed their stores. It's like a ghost town downtown."

Local railroad and sawmill employees are still working, but everything else has dried up, said Sulz.

"It's a devastating blow, but it's a necessary thing to keep people safe."  

Up until about a week ago, ski resorts in Banff National Park had  seen a steady stream of visitors drawn by "incredible" snow conditions, said Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise Tourism.

Only a few days before hills shut down, people in neighbouring British Columbia were being encouraged to get onto the slopes for some fresh air.

"We're devastated. We're finding this incredibly difficult," said Bruce. "It feels like it's happened so fast."

Bruce said some businesses that shut down may never reopen, and people in the tight-knit Rocky Mountain community are supporting each other as best they can.

Banff Mayor Karen Sorenson said the town normally has a year-round population of 9,000. It's estimated up to half have been laid off over the last week.

A good portion were young people on working holidays from places such as Australia.

"Our hearts break for these kids who came out here for an adventure," said Sorenson. "It's kind of all disappeared for them."

Sorenson said the town will be re-examining its budget this week to see what spending cuts it can make and what tax relief it can offer locals. It has set up an email service to field questions about work visas, mental-health supports, housing and other matters.

National parks remain open, but not their visitor centres or washrooms.

The same goes for Alberta Parks. Careless visitors were scolded in a Twitter post Sunday.

"This weekend we noticed garbage, used tampons, diapers, and even human waste next to our facilities! Help us keep parks clean. Whatever you take in, take it back out."

Canmore, Alta., a scenic town just east of the Banff gates, wants visitors to stay out.

"Driving through the mountains to enjoy the scenery is not prohibited by the government of Alberta, but we need Canmore residents and visitors to make socially responsible decisions," Mayor John Borrowman wrote on Facebook.

A doctor in Invermere, B.C., penned an open letter last week urging Albertans with vacation homes in the Columbia Valley to think twice before heading there.

William Brown said the local hospital only has eight beds, eight full-time doctors and one ventilator.

"Our town is small and isolated and our closest intensive care unit will likely be strained with our regional cases," wrote Brown, who noted that patient transport between provinces is difficult at the best of times.

Pete Bourke, executive director of the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce, said most part-time residents would understand Brown's plea.

"It's a common sense approach," he said.

But COVID-19 will be tough on a region where tourism is "hugely important," said Bourke.

In the winter, visitors head to the Panorama Mountain Resort near Invermere and the Fairmont Hot Springs Ski Resort. In the summer, Lake Windermere is popular with boaters and beach-goers.  

"Anyone that's affected by out-of-market tourism and travel guests have had to make some really tough choices," said Bourke.

"There's just a lot of uncertainty in general out there, a lot of questions that people have that we're trying to find answers to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 23, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press