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Mountain tourism in the time of COVID-19


Annie Webb


Jun 26, 2020


Jun 26, 2020


While tourists and outdoor enthusiasts were unable to partake in their favorite mountain activities during the COVID-19 shutdown, the pause has also affected the tourism-based economies of mountain destinations. Now that some tourism destinations are reopening, how will COVID-19 affect Canada’s mountain destinations like Banff, Alberta? How will tourists approach travel in general?

On this episode of the Canadian Mountain Podcast, the Mayor of Banff, Karen Sorenson, discusses how the shutdown has affected her town, as well as the planning that has gone on behind the scenes to ensure both residents and tourists are safe and satisfied when they visit Banff this summer. The second guest is Dr. Joe Pavelka, Professor of Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership at Mount Royal University, who discusses his preliminary findings on travel fears and aspirations associated with COVID-19. Listen to the podcast here:

Banff shuts down

Mountain destinations in Canada, like Whistler, Banff and Jasper, are recognized as major tourist destinations worldwide and draw millions of international travelers each year. Banff is a small town of about 9,000 people but attracts approximately four million visitors per year, with 50% from outside Canada. Approximately 90% of Banff’s economy is supported by tourism, which came to a screeching halt this past March. The pandemic and lack of work forced many of Banff’s seasonal employees to go back home. Now the challenge is hiring enough staff for the reopening of the summer season.

Town of Banff

Town of Banff

Banff reopens

Sorenson says Banff is resiliently gearing up for another summer of tourism and ready to safely welcome visitors again. They are also assisting businesses to ensure safety, sustainability, and create new products and opportunities. Banff is encouraging tourists to walk, and the town’s main road, Banff Avenue, is now reserved for pedestrian traffic only. They are providing extra space for social distancing, outdoor seating for restaurants, more space for businesses to operate, and safe public transit. Banff has also created an economic task force with multiple stakeholders to explore and  test innovative, sustainable approaches to tourism.

Will the people come?

Will the tourists come to Banff in droves or will they be hesitant to travel? How will people approach travel in the time of COVID-19? Joe Pavelka, Professor of Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership at Mount Royal University is trying to answer these questions through a study around travel fears and aspirations associated with COVID-19. The study involves an 8-10-minute, 45-question survey, which was designed to capture data while people were still in isolation.

Pavelka first explores how past crises give us an indication of what to expect as the tourism industry gets restarted. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then again during the 2008 financial crisis,  travel shut down for a brief period. The gradual return to travel started with driving to local and regional locations. Travelling by plane is the first thing people will give up when there is a crisis, however, the outdoor and adventure tourism sector was remarkably resilient and only experienced very minor disruptions during these two crises.

Preliminary survey results

The survey suggests most people are keen to travel to places they think are safe and have modern medical facilities. Only a small percentage said they are not comfortable travelling anymore. The strongest travel fears for most respondents was being away from family and friends during a pandemic and being around large crowds.

Most people said they would be travelling to a nature destination after restrictions are lifted. Many also said they would take a trip in their car in their country or region to visit family and friends. Types of travel they would avoid include taking a cruise and going to major cities, all-inclusive resorts and major attractions (e.g. Disney World).

In summary, people want to travel, but will primarily seek tourism options close to home. Some types of travel are less attractive, which may put pressure on the types of travel that are more attractive right now. More highly sought-out nature and mountain destinations may become very crowded with tourists, which is of high concern to residents as well. Even if there are fewer international tourists visiting Banff this summer, will increased local tourism even the numbers out? Time will tell.

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