At One of Canada’s Top Destinations, Tourists Are Back but Much Has Changed

More than a year has passed since my last visit to the mountain towns of Banff and Canmore in Alberta, and the contrast is astounding. After a long absence due to the pandemic, tourists have returned.

An old and complicated problem has also returned with vengeance in Banff: too many cars. Although the town has introduced paid parking on its streets and in many downtown areas, I was warned this week that finding a location could be tricky. disappointed.

So I seriously followed a series of helpful signs that led to the town’s 112-year-old rustic, 112-year-old’s free parking. train station, about eight minutes by foot or by shuttle bus from the center of Banff. The main parking lot there was completely packed. My heart sank as I drove past a relatively new sub-plot nearby with over 500 vacant spaces. Only at its furthest end did I find half a dozen empty spots.

Banff . National Park, the attraction of the towns of Banff and Canmore is, of course, one of Canada’s most popular tourist attractions. This week, it released some numbers confirming the recovery. Last month, the park had 694,127 visitors, July had the largest number of visitors in nearly a decade. And from April to the end of July, about 230,000 more people visited compared to the same period last year.

But as I made my way through the crowds in town with David Matys of the Banff and Lake Louise tourism agency, it became clear that much was not yet back to pre-pandemic state.

One of the most obvious is the lack of comparison between bus trips carrying foreign tourists. Mr. Matys told me that in 2019, Canadians made up about 60 percent of the crowd, while about 25 percent were Americans, and the remaining 15 percent were people from the rest of the world. This year, the distribution is 90% Canadian, with Americans making up the majority of the rest.

“People are starting to get out more during Covid or want to be outdoors,” said Mr. Matys as we strolled along Banff Avenue, the main street, which ends in the park. iconic administrative building. “And I think that desire is continuing.”

As is the case everywhere, some businesses in Banff did not survive the pandemic. But the number of empty stores was nothing like what I saw on a recent trip to Edmonton.

In Banff, the increase in Canadian visitors, especially from Western Canada, has had an unusual impact. Driving from the Trans-Canada Highway this midweek, I was surprised to see many hotels advertising availability during peak season. Mr. Matys explained that visitors in the area may come during the day or not stay long, leaving rooms empty.

But the pandemic has had some positive effects. Much of Banff Avenue was closed to pedestrians during the pandemic and so far has been. Parks Canada is also continuing to close a nearby highway to cyclists, if in less season. And Mr Matys pointed to various businesses that have used the Covid lull to refurbish their buildings.

He said the pandemic has also helped spur efforts to limit overcrowding during peak seasons.

“We don’t have a people problem,” he says, “we have a car problem.”

Among the proposals to encourage people to leave their cars behind is a plan from a company that has a contract to lease the station. It is suggesting resume regular train service between Calgary and Banff with stops at seven other locations along the way.

Like elsewhere, one of the most pressing problems facing the return of tourists is finding workers to serve them in hotels, restaurants and shops. Plus, the problem is the shortage of young people from Australia and New Zealand in the country with special two-year visas that allow them to work.

Sky McLean, chief executive officer of Basecamp Resorts, told me: “I don’t know if people just evaporated or what happened during Covid, but we couldn’t find people on any level,” Sky McLean, CEO of Basecamp Resorts. “Everything from housekeepers to receptionists, accountants, carpenters on construction sites to full-blown executives at headquarters.”

Basecamp, which is opening a new hotel in Banff this year and also has several properties in Canmore and elsewhere near the park, has had to close rooms at points during the pandemic and at times. Had to ask the head office staff to clean and clean the room. Recently, Ms. McLean hired recruiters to come up with a longer-term plan.

“It’s the biggest struggle in the industry right now,” she said. “But I will handle everything during the pandemic.”

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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has covered Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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