‘Great time for Alberta to take Banff back’: Tourist towns seek locals as international visitors vanish

‘Great time for Alberta to take Banff back’: Tourist towns seek locals as international visitors vanish

BANFF — The last few times Brigitte and Francis Hopkins closed The Grizzly House restaurant on Banff Avenue was when they got married or for brief repairs.

But after being shut down for months as the coronavirus raged, the fondue restaurant’s doors appear to have reopened into a new era.

For the Hopkins, who own the 53-year-old restaurant in Canada’s first national park, it has been challenging to integrate new social distancing guidelines in a historic restaurant with hand-carved wooden décor. They had to match the new wooden partitions between tables with the existing wood features  — and also carve and stain the additions in a way that would fit with the existing, aged woods. Glass was added as unobtrusively as possible to maintain the restaurant’s vibe and storied history.

They have also opened a patio for the first time ever as the street outside is closed to traffic to accommodate physical distancing between patrons and visitors. The staff is in masks and a host at the front door greets guests with a sanitizer.

Restaurants and tourism hotspots across the country are facing similar challenges in reopening after the country went into lockdown in March to contain the pandemic. Towns dependent on tourism are dreaming up new marketing pitches, while restaurants are revamping their decor and reimagining their premises as socially distanced eateries, while hoping to accommodate enough guests to generate revenues.

“When Banff was locked down for the first maybe eight weeks, it was a complete desert — there was no one here,” said Francis. “But people have been trickling back as regulations have been relaxed. And in the last ten days we have started to see more people coming to enjoy the town.”

The Grizzly House owners Brigitte and Francis Hopkins outside the restaurant on reopening day.

The Grizzly House owners Brigitte and Francis Hopkins outside the restaurant on reopening day.

Gavin Young/Postmedia

Banff is one of the biggest tourism draws in the country, with four million visitors to the national park each year, slightly less than Alberta’s population of 4.4 million.

But it will be hard to hit those numbers this year as the once-bustling mountain resort remains bereft of international tourists amid travel restrictions and concerns about the global pandemic.


As Canada’s economy reopens, business owners in tourist destinations such as Banff and Whistler, B.C., are increasingly turning to regional visitors — from nearby cities such as Calgary or Vancouver — to make up for part of the decline in revenues.

The goal is to sell area residents a trip to the picturesque destination where — for once — there’s plenty of room for physical distancing and open spaces, which would be swarming with people in any other year.

“Right now, in June, we’re seeing about 44 per cent of the vehicular traffic that we’ve seen at this time of year,” according to Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen.

“One of the things I’ve heard from businesses is if they see 30 to 40 per cent in summer 2020 that they’ve seen in the past couple of years, that would be considered somewhat successful this year,” Sorensen said.

Banff mayor Karen Sorensen.

Banff mayor Karen Sorensen.

Gavin Young/Postmedia

The town is participating in a major Western Canadian push to bring Albertans and Canadians from elsewhere out to hike, camp, stay and eat in Banff, Jasper, Whistler and other destinations in the Rockies.

“It’s a great opportunity to come and visit us in Banff now because there’s much more availability from parking to hotel rooms to seats in the restaurants,” Francis said. “This year is a great time for Alberta to take Banff back.”


The decline in tourism revenue will have a substantial effect on every province, according to a June 9 forecast from Destination Canada, a Crown corporation that helps the tourism industry with strategy and research.

While the wider economy is reopening, international flights are still restricted as is non-essential and leisure travel between Canada and the United States, where COVID-19 infection rates are growing at an alarming rate.

American tourists make up the vast majority of visitors to Canada each year, generating around $9.1 billion in revenues last year, according to Destination Canada. But as the U.S.-Canada border remains closed at least until July 21, the figure is expected to decline 81 per cent to $1.7 billion this year.

The number of arrivals to Canada from other countries also fell by 96.6 per cent in April, compared to the same period last year, according to Statistics Canada.

Hand sanitizer and COVID-19 information are new additions a the popular Banff sign near the town entrance.

Gavin Young/Postmedia

“The summer is typically, for the tourism industry, a do-or-die period. You make money to provision for the lower season,” said Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The decline in visitors has been “devastating” for tourism operators, Whistler mayor Jack Crompton said. “We’ve been essentially closed since the middle of March,” he said, noting that the town is marketing aggressively to British Columbians, asking them to explore their own province this summer.

Alberta’s hotel industry and the province’s tourism ministry have launched marketing initiatives to encourage Albertans to travel within their province this summer, said Trevor Long, general manager of the Rimrock Resort Hotel and president of the Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association board of directors.

Rimrock Resort Hotel general manager Trevor Long.

Gavin Young/Postmedia

“While our typical occupancy would be 90 to 95 per cent for the next four months, most hotels will struggle to even achieve 35 per cent occupancy — so we’ve been dramatically hit,” Long said. “It’s going to be a tough go for the remainder of the year.”

Hotels in Banff and elsewhere are looking to draw residents into their suites with fire sale offers. Many hotels have cut their daily rates by more than 25 per cent and some have cut it in half. To ease customer anxiety, in many places concierges wear masks and gloves, while valets are toting small plastic bags to handle guests’ car keys.


There are also fewer staff working at the hotels. Typically, Rimrock, the luxury hotel closest to the Banff Hot Springs, usually employs 400 people in the summer season, but this year’s staff count stands at 200.

Long said he’s hopeful the Canadian government will consider incentives for the domestic population to travel, similar to other countries.

In Japan, the government is offering citizens tourism vouchers worth the equivalent of $250 to travel within their own country as the pandemic knocks out international travel. The Swiss government is considering a similar measure, while lawmakers in the U.S. are mulling tax deductions for those touring within the country.

Tanya Fir, Alberta’s Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism, said the province is hearing from businesses and groups in favour of the travel voucher or tax credit strategy to boost the hard-hit tourism sector. The province has also eliminated the tourism levy for the year, which is expected to save tourism companies between $16 million and $27 million.

Cascade mountain and a quiet Cascade Gardens in Banff on June 18, 2020.

Cascade mountain and a quiet Cascade Gardens in Banff on June 18, 2020.

Gavin Young/Postmedia

The province, which is aiming to double the sector’s capacity over the next decade, is aware of the challenges facing the sector, Fir said during a telephone interview. “We do know there have been serious declines.”

Across the Rockies, the loss of revenue from summer tourists might be difficult to recover during the winter skiing season. Indeed, even winter-focused tourism draws such as ski resorts are preparing for a difficult season.

“Even if you have the same number of people riding the lifts, the spending from those incremental international dollars that come into the country are an important part of the Canadian economy,” said Christopher Nicholson, president and CEO of the Canada West Ski Association in Kamloops, B.C., noting that 20 out of the 90 ski resorts in Western Canada heavily depend on international tourists for revenues.

The spending from those incremental international dollars that come into the country are an important part of the Canadian economy

Christopher Nicholson

In response to the coronavirus crisis and collapse in travel, Nicholson said that ski operators have shelved planned investments they would normally undertake over the summer.

It’s even possible that ski resorts, which employ 20,000 people each year, will need to hire fewer staff for the winter season.

“It is a very intense time for the industry. What we can’t do until the fall is make decisions based on what the world will look like at that time,” Nicholson said.

In Banff, between 5,000 and 6,000 people were laid off during the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, which is a staggering number that represents as much as 66 per cent of the the town’s 9,000 residents. The unemployment rate may be even higher as many workers in the town are temporary workers on work visas.

The iconic Banff Springs Hotel.

Gavin Young/Postmedia

Some businesses in Banff are “hanging on by a thread,” said Banff Mayor Sorensen.

Typically, at this time of year, visitors to Lake Louise, a glassy lake surrounded by ten mountain peaks in Banff National Park, must use one of two overflow parking lots along the highway that are 10 and 22 kilometres away from the Chataeu Lake Louise and ride a shuttle bus up to the lakeshore.

On a recent weekday in June, however, those overflow lots were empty and numerous vacancy signs were visible on the ride up to the main lot at the chateau, with around 100 people along the lakeshore under the world-famous glacier.

As the parks and mountain towns reopen and hope to draw tourists, the Grizzly House’s Hopkins are looking to practice what they preach, by taking a vacation in their own backyard at the Chateau Lake Louise.

“There’s so much in the way of attractions, services and the beautiful backcountry,” Hopkins said. “The message is ‘welcome back’.”

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