Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT) is releasing a five-year plan for development and tourism later this year. But for now, the local tourism sector has seen few benefits from the easing of Alberta's COVID-19 restrictions and does not expect to see a large recovery anytime soon.
The development group estimates tourism accounts for less than five percent of the local economy. Kevin Weidlich, CEO and president of FMWBEDT, hopes the sector can help with economic recovery and become a stronger pillar of the local economy. The organization has already partnered with McMurray Métis to develop tourism strategies and has hopes to partner with other rural and Indigenous operators.
Northern lights tourism is one of the initiatives FMWBEDT hopes will drive tourism traffic into the region. In early 2020 before the pandemic began, Michael Seiger, vice president of tourism with FMWBEDT, took several local business owners to Yellowknife to study that community's northern lights tourism sector.
“Andrew Lake Lodge is an example where the owner went with us [to Yellowknife] and saw what the Northern Lights could do to extend his revenue model,” said Seiger. “It’s really all about education right now, showing people the opportunities here. People just don’t know all that we have to offer.”
But until these campaigns begin and more travel restrictions ease, existing operators are left struggling to recoup losses from the pandemic. Many tourism operators in the region are already based in rural and Indigenous communities, or frequently bring business to those communities.
Seiger said fishing lodges in the region saw a rise in local and Canadian visitors, for instance, but those businesses rely heavily on Americans. The slight uptick was not enough to offset the loss of American tourism dollars.
Rai Komarnisky, vice president of McMurray Aviation, said the company saw roughly half of business disappear between March and July 2020. The company offers flights to Fort Chipewyan and charter services across the region, both of which were in short demand at the beginning of the pandemic. Boosting cargo services has brought some business back this year, but limits on international travel is still felt.
“Since we are already halfway into the [traditional] busy season, we are expecting not to show full business potential until next year,” said Komarnisky. “We’ve seen impacts primarily from travellers from places like the United States and that likely won’t change until travel restrictions regarding COVID are lifted.”
At the Fort Chipewyan Bicentennial Museum, the pandemic saw attendance virtually disappear when community leaders restricted access to the hamlet at the start of the pandemic. Museum director Maureen Clarke says traffic and sales were increasing when the pandemic began, and it will take time before she sees business reach those same numbers again.
“We only had one person come through on Thursday,” said Clarke. “We’d love to see more people come through again so that people can get a real appreciation for this part of the country.”
Councillor Bruce Inglis, who represents Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, said he is anxious to see the community return to business.
“The potential is here; it just hasn’t been developed to a great extent," he said.
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today