Jikke Gyorki of Tourism Fernie said many of the drivers behind tourism in the Elk Valley drew more people here than initially expected considering the clampdown on travel during the pandemic. (Phil McLachlan / The Free Press)

That’s a wrap: Summer tourism outperforms pessimistic forecast

Tourism Fernie reported some operators managed to outperform August numbers from 2019

As summer wraps up, tourism in Fernie has managed to outperform a pessimistic summer forecast despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Tourism and lodging revenues were expected to fall as far as 50 percent compared to 2019, but according to Jikke Gyorki, who is executive director of Tourism Fernie, some parts of the sector not only managed to outperform that sobering prediction, they managed to outperform their 2019 tourism numbers outright.

She said that while tourism numbers are overall lower, “given everybody’s expectations on what summer was going to look like,” the number’s weren’t so bad.

“We are still waiting for more official numbers, but most businesses and accommodators surpassed that forecast for July and August (and) ended up very busy with tourism, with some businesses doing better than last August,” she said.

She explained that Fernie’s location and it’s tourism draw had managed to make it the ideal destination in the middle of a pandemic – that is, fewer faces and wide open spaces.

It wasn’t all rosy though – the complete stop on international and U.S. visitors bit the fly fishing sector hard, while health directives put a lid on capacity for food and hospitality businesses.

“Federal programs have helped, such as the Wage Subsidy program. While others, such as the CERB, helped initially, but did pose some challenges when businesses needed to recall and hire staff to ramp up operations again.”

Gyorki said that overall tourism had “done well for the most part” over summer, and Fernie was fortunate to have not had any COVID-19 outbreaks.

The big challenge for tourism and travel in Fernie had been the anxiety around waiting for relaxation on travel advisories and when tourists could begin moving around Canada at all.

Travel within B.C. was never going to cut it for the Elk Valley, according to Gyorki, who explained that despite government numbers that 65 per cent of tourism within B.C. was by B.C. residents, “obviously for our neck of the woods, 65 to 75 per cent of our market is Alberta – not British Columbia.”

Lucky for Fernie and the area, tourism operators were permitted to market to Alberta, so when the phase 3 reopening kicked in in late June, a wave of inquiries hit the accommodation sector as eager travellers sought information of safety and COVID-protocols.

“Our summer tourism audiences were mostly similar to before, many from Alberta and the southern interior. But we did see more of the B.C. market making the journey all the way to this far corner of the province as supported by the Restart Plan and marketing efforts. The halt in international and USA visitors was the biggest change, but the regional AB & BC market filled a good chunk of that business,” said Gyorki.

Looking ahead, Gyorki said that fall numbers were again expected to be lower than years past, but hopes were high that Fernie would again exceed pessimistic forecasts of numbers down by 30 to 40 per cent.

Looking even further ahead, Gyorki said that winter was going to have plenty of challenges, but plenty of opportunities – with or without the U.S. market, which is a big driver for the Fernie Alpine Resort.

The gap left by U.S. travellers (who make up around 30 percent of visitors to the resort) “will be hard to fill,” said Gyorki, who added that as a result, tourism would have to target Ontario and Quebec instead.

While marketing will be competitive – given B.C. and Alberta are filled with resorts left hungry by a lack of U.S. tourists, Gyorki said that Fernie’s broader appeal thanks to Nordic skiing, snowmobiling and fatbiking will draw more visitors.

READ MORE: RCR close to releasing winter plan

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