Helmcken Falls (File photo)

Helmcken Falls (File photo)

North Thompson tourism season facing challenges

Many businesses can’t find enough workers

The North Thompson tourism industry is ready for a comeback, but accommodations facilities are facing a double conundrum: many are either full of pipeline workers or they can’t find people to do hospitality jobs.

Clearwater mayor Merlin Blackwell said it’s concerning that a vast majority of rooms in and around town are filled with long-term pipeline workers, especially as businesses attempt to rebound following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “I think that’s going to come to haunt Clearwater at this point, because we had a fairly strong tourism market, even with COVID, with B.C.ers (coming) into the parks and (the) available accommodation.”

He said they may see a lot of travellers from Western Europe, who want to escape the turmoil in Ukraine, but there is no place to host them.

Many hotels, motels and campgrounds in the North Thompson valley said they expect a busier tourism season this year, and some are fully booked up for the season. However, a lot of accommodations in the region are still filled with pipeliners, as the project carries on longer than many had expected, and some even stayed open over the winter to serve them.

Jane King, manager of the Rivermount Motel & Campground in Little Fort, said they’ve been full-up, renting spaces to the pipeline workers. The business would usually shut its doors for a few months over the winter, but stayed open last year. Although they consider it positive to have their rooms and campground full, they most likely wouldn’t have much space this summer for those travelling through.

Over at the Clearwater Valley Resort KOA, which offers tenting and RV sites, as well as hotel rooms and bungalows, co-owner Hannah Clifford said they’ve had a lot of interest from potential visitors, but don’t have a lot of availability.

They have about an 80 per cent vacancy rate in their tenting sites, but just 15 per cent availability in hotel rooms, and even less throughout the rest of the campground. However, Clifford added the spaces that are available will be left for tourists.

“We’re keeping it open for our summer people … because that’s just not fair,” she said.

The Wells Gray Inn had offered monthly rentals to pipeline workers, but when the tourism season began, they switched to nightly rentals to leave rooms open for people travelling and visiting the area, said bookkeeper Kelly Ruttan.

“Once a pipeline leaves a town, we still need to depend on our tourists, right?” she said. “We don’t want to cut that off.”

Over at the Dutch Lake Motel & Campground, manager Shyam Kaushik said while they’re accommodating some pipeliners, they are pretty much booked for the season with other travellers.

Although the businesses are filling up fast, Blackwell questioned what will happen when the expansion project is done and the workers leave.

After the Canfor mill shut down in 2019, he added, the region welcomed hundreds of new people to the area for the pipeline in fairly quick succession. Clearwater didn’t really have time to figure out what a post-mill economy would look like, he said.

“I think we’re going to be in for a shock,” he told the Times. “I think when Trans Mountain leaves, we could see a little minor recession.”

The Times requested an interview with Trans Mountain, but the company said no one was available and forwarded an emailed statement.

There are roughly 1,000 people in the area working on the pipeline expansion project in the North Thompson, according to the statement.

In Clearwater, crews are working on direct pipe installation at the Clearwater River. The camp in Blue River is now open, with room for 550 workers. The company is also in the process of finding a new contractor for the 4A spread in the region, according to the statement.

It suggested construction of the Trans Mountain expansion project in the North Thompson region is over 40 per cent complete, and over 60 per cent in Clearwater. It is expected to be completed in fall 2023.

While many restaurants and accommodations were able to stay open and take advantage of the increased pipeline population, Blackwell said they don’t know the impact these temporary workers are having on local businesses and their ability to survive without the mill, the pipeline or a 2019 level of tourism.

After the Trans Mountain project finished its expansion project through Jasper and Mount Robson parks in 2008, for instance, there were serious repercussions for the tourism industry in both Valemount and McBride.

Snowmobilers from the Prairies used to fill nearly every room over the winter months, but after the project began, pipeline workers took over those accommodations.

The mayors of Valemount and McBride said it took five years to rebuild their tourism industry after that project finished. With the Trans Mountain expansion project now underway, tourism operators in those two communities are leaving space for snowmobilers and other travellers, even if it means leaving rooms empty.

A changing future

Local businesses are already gearing up for changing times.

Clifford said the KOA campground had stayed open last winter to accommodate pipeliners, and expects to do so for the foreseeable future – mainly for snowmobilers and winter sightseeing in Wells Gray Provincial Park.

But businesses have another issue to contend with: finding workers.

“I think there’s going to be some challenges,” said Michael Nesterski, manager of the Blue River Campground and RV Park.

Mike Wiegele Heli-Skiing Resort is already facing a worker shortage. During the summer season, the heli-ski company focuses on accommodations, operating a number of hotels and motels in Blue River, as well as the Saddle Mountain Restaurant.

“You cannot find enough workers, which is sort of an overall tourism industry problem that I hear,” Matic Vecko, Wiegele’s general manager, told the Times. “Right now we have people coming back, we have bus tours, we have international visitors return, but we’re struggling to hire enough staff.”

Wiegele’s offers housing, competitive wages, access to rental gear and is exploring a four-day work week, but even still, Vecko said it might take some time for everything to return to normal.

The labour shortage, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, means the Saddle Mountain Restaurant will not open this season, he added.

Ruttan said the Inn is also having a hard time finding staff, resulting in reduced service hours for the restaurant and bar.

“We’ve actually had to cut back our hours…a lot of places are struggling to find employees,” she said.

Some businesses in Barriere are experiencing a similar story.

Hugo Blanky, owner of the Monte Carlo Motel, said while they don’t have as many pipeliners now as they did last year, their room availability is inconsistent and they can’t offer any more long-term stays.

“I got so many bookings that I say, ‘No, I got nothing,’” he said. “I got a room here, and then a couple days down the road I got another one, nothing long term.”

He said they don’t get many international tourists, but Barriere is a good halfway point for people travelling from Jasper to the coast, and they see a lot of repeat customers.

Other businesses, like Chinook Cove Golf and RV, don’t offer long-term accommodations at all because they don’t have the space.

General Manager Brad Baker said last year was their best on record and they’re expecting to be busy again this season. On a typical weekend, the resort can see around 200 people, many return customers.

“I have had to turn down the pipeliners for that reason and my RV park is full of golfers,” he said.

Barriere mayor Ward Stamer said the district hasn’t suffered like Clearwater in terms of housing and accommodations, as many hotels and motels have flexibility in available rooms.

And while Barriere may not be benefiting now from Trans Mountain legacy funds or projects, Stamer said “there’s going to be some positives for Barriere when they start winding things down.”

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