Helmcken Falls is a popular tourist destination in Wells Gray Park. (File photo)

Helmcken Falls is a popular tourist destination in Wells Gray Park. (File photo)

Recovery in tourism will come with re-opened borders, says Wells Gray tourism manager

Government health officials confirmed that B.C. would be entering Phase 3 of the reopening plan on July 1. While many factors still lie ahead in getting the tourism industry back on track, many are still optimistic about the upcoming season and 2022.

“It’s really fantastic news for tourism and for all our businesses,” said Stephanie Molina, executive director of Tourism Wells Gray. “Opening up our markets a bit further will certainly help us try to recover from all the COVID economic impacts that we felt as an industry.”

Many businesses in the upper North Thompson region are seeing an uptick in bookings, even just days after the announcement. Moving into the next step of the recovery plan means visitors from all over B.C. and across Canada are welcome for recreational travel.

And while the increase in local and inter-provincial travel is beneficial for tour businesses who operate out of Wells Gray Park and surrounding areas, opening the border to international travellers is what will boost recovery even further, said Molina.

“We are a destination that has so many international visitors,” she said, noting that even if every traveller in Canada made Wells Gray their vacation destination, it wouldn’t make up for the number of international visitors the area gets each year. “That last crucial piece for us will be opening up the borders to the United States and also to the world at large. That, I think, is when we will actually be able to see recovery.”

Sarah Shook, co-owner of Vavenby Trail Rides, agrees. After closing during the shutdown, the tour company opened up when restrictions eased at the beginning of the summer last year. And while they had bookings, their business was massively affected.

Normally, they would hire a handful of international folks but, with borders closed, they weren’t able to. She said because of this, they limited the rides to one per day and to one family group only, turning a lot of people away. Shook figured they brought in less than 30 per cent of a standard season, but were able to stay afloat with help from provincial and federal COVID funding.

Similar to the rest of the area, 2019 was one of their busiest years, with about 75 per cent of their travellers from abroad. The move into Phase 3 is welcomed, but true recovery will come with an open border, noted Shook.

“Financially, it’ll be better,” she said. “I don’t think it’ll meet up with the previous years because we’re certainly lacking our international people who I think is what we see mostly in the summer.”

The folks over at Blue River Campground were happy when B.C. moved into the next step. While they were open during COVID, following distancing guidelines and increasing sanitation, a lot of what they offer is community-based, like bikes for the kids. With vaccinations reaching over 80 per cent in the province, there’s a feeling of safety, said Brittney McNabb, receptionist and groundskeeper at the campground.

“It’s a lot safer in your mind that you can let your kids go out and bike and play with other kids,” she said. “There’s the lake that’s a 10-minute walk away. People can just be less scared of people.”

The campground didn’t need to make a lot changes, she added, as the sites are spaced out and they have a small number of people on staff. But McNabb said there is one thing she would like to see continued at the campground and that’s the sanitization of people’s hands and the equipment.

“I’m hoping we’ll keep the sanitizers that are around,” she said. “I’m hoping we can leave more incentive for people to be more sanitary.”

But it isn’t a good story for all tourism businesses. Many rafting companies are still in limbo as the heat wave raised the water levels again for the Clearwater and North Thompson Rivers. And for International Whitewater Expeditions, they would normally head up the river road, but the higher canyons haven’t been accessible due to the washout that effectively killed last year’s season.

And any potential repairs to the Clearwater River Road were put to a stop when volunteers deemed the ground too unstable. Doug Trotter, owner-operator of IWE, had some good news, however, that a deal had been struck with BC Parks to allow a put-in point in the middle canyon just before the washout. This allows them to bring back the one day, half day and overnight trips.

But IWE is still at the mercy of the of water levels.

“Everybody is still laid off,” said Trotter, noting they’ve got a few office staff and a full-time employee helping around the shop. “Everybody’s just sitting around waiting in limbo again this year.”

They had been taking bookings for the season, he added, but with the rising water levels and the increase in fire activity, the bookings started to drop. Trotter noted anything would be better than the previous year, but as the cancellations come in, it’s “like shades of 2020.”