Okanagan braces for tourism wave

 The Peach

Workers at The Peach snack shop on the Penticton waterfront have added masks to their uniforms this year. But they’re ready to dish up ice cream to visitors.

Tourism Kelowna’s message to the rest of the province is: “We’re ready.”

As B.C. eases restrictions on travel after a near total shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Okanagan communities are again inviting tourists to the Valley.

“We’re delighted the province has moved into Phase 3 reopening. I mean delighted. That’s the best news we could have heard,” said Lisanne Ballantyne, president and CEO of Tourism Kelowna.

“The province’s reliance on short-haul markets to help economic recovery completely aligns with Kelowna. The majority of people are driving in for vacations when they’re coming into the Kelowna area, so that is great news for us. We’re perfectly positioned going forward.”

The No. 1 question asked at the Kelowna Visitor Centre from prospective travellers is: “I’m thinking about coming, are you ready?”

Ballantyne said it’s crucial that businesses post on social media that they have protocols in place, they are operating safely, and they are open for business.

She also encouraged locals to post about the beautiful Okanagan and their favourite businesses on their social media feeds.

“Hearing from a tourism office that a destination is ready to welcome visitors is great,” she said. “It becomes very impactful when a restaurant owner or a restaurant fan posts on social media that: ‘My favourite restaurant is open. They are doing a great job on physical distancing, and, wow, Kelowna is ready.’”

Starting Monday, Bernard Avenue in downtown Kelowna will close to vehicles so businesses can expand their patios. It’s expected to stay closed until Sept. 8. Ballantyne said that kind of change will draw people to Kelowna

Being able to spread out into the street for easier shopping, dining, tasting or other experiences can make the difference between profit, or not.

The pandemic hit just as Kelowna was seeing record numbers of tourists in 2019, emerging as a four-season destination.

“We were excited going into 2020, and then COVID hit,” said Ballantyne.

Kelowna airport usually sees two million passengers a year, but is down by 95%.

Visitation in May was down 44% from this time last year, and May occupancy was at about 19%, when normally it’s about 75% at this time of year.

June numbers are expected to improve.

To survive, a number of businesses closed in March or delayed their openings.

“It’s really important to note that returning to travel unfortunately doesn’t necessarily mean returning to profitability. Some businesses are still facing some significant challenges,” she said.

“We’re definitely seeing movement in the right direction.”

Still, there are a lot of “ifs” right now – including if tourism businesses can make it through the summer and if there’s a bump in visitors this fall.

If the right circumstances align, many businesses should be able to start proper recovery, said Ballantyne.

She added that many owners would consider 50% of last year’s business as a success this year.

“If they could make it through the summer, they felt they would be all right,” she said.

Some businesses have completely pivoted to survive, offering curbside pickups or moving completely online. Ballantyne said physical distancing is the most challenging restriction affecting operators. It means businesses like wine tours and restaurants will cater to fewer customers at a time.

“People can’t congregate in a tasting room like they used to,” she said.

Outdoor adventures, meanwhile – like hiking, biking, and boating suppliers – are business as usual, with increased sanitization, of course.

Right now, tourism organizations are only advertising in parts of B.C. “Ideally, by September we’ll be advertising throughout Western Canada,” she said.

However, it appears U.S. visitors may not be coming for some time. Americans, who had been emerging pre-pandemic as a long-term growth market, are facing the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases, meaning the border could remain closed indefinitely. Tourism Kelowna had been focusing on group travel, corporate conferences and large-scale meetings for U.S. visitors.

It’s a lucrative demographic as business travellers spend more money.

The 50-person cap on groups, though, is affecting that sector. Some advocacy groups are encouraging the province consider approving larger groups on a venue-by-venue basis — for example, an event at an amphitheatre could work better than an indoor space, a conference is easier to social distance at than a concert.

In the South Okanagan, communities have teamed up and formed the South Okanagan Tourism Alliance. It’s a collaboration to promote travel into the region as a whole.

It’s based on an understanding that places like Penticton, Oliver, Osoyoos and Summerland aren’t as big as Kelowna or Kamloops, and they don’t have the same resources.

“What we’re trying to do here is reestablish people to come back into the community and into the South Okanagan region,” said Thom Tischik, executive director of Travel Penticton,

“There’s some optimism of course that there’s going to be some more traffic and that’s certainly what we are all looking for.”

He reminded people not to travel if they’re sick; reserve ahead of time to book accommodation; and make safe choices. That means understanding your limits if you’re doing activities, like rock climbing, floating the channel or mountain biking.

“We want to try to make sure that everybody stays safe. And not only from a COVID situation but also for your own capacity. We’re all eager to get out to experience the province, and that’s awesome. We want to make sure that whatever you’re doing you’re doing it safely,” said Tischik.

Penticton has been helping businesses weather COVID-19 by asking locals to support local businesses, including restaurants, breweries and wineries. Many got on board.

“For Penticton, the initial start of COVID was at a quieter time for us,” he said.

“We have had virtually every event from COVID’s start right through to the end of August cancel for now or postpone to next year. That’s been a hit.”

B.C. Premier John Horgan advised British Columbians who want to travel within the province this summer to plan ahead and be respectful while visiting other communities, especially rural towns.

“As we carefully turn up the dial on our activity, we can now look to travel safely around the province. But as we hit the open roads this summer, we must remember we are not leaving COVID-19 behind, and we need to continue to do our part to bend the curve and protect the progress we’ve made,” said Horgan.

The provincial health officer has laid out travel guidelines for everyone travelling to and within B.C.:

— pre-trip planning and research on available resources at arriving destination;

— respecting any local travel advisories to isolated and remote communities;

— no travelling for anyone who is sick, and if symptoms develop while travelling, self isolate immediately and call 8-1-1 for guidance and testing;

— practising safe physical distancing of two metres at all times;

— spending time in small groups and open spaces; and

— practising good hygiene, including frequent hand washing and cleaning.

TOURISM INDUSTRY THRILLED

Phase 3 of British Columbia’s reopening plan is a crucial step towards recovery for the tourism industry.

The tourism industry, among many others, felt the impact of COVID-19 immediately, but now that Canadian visitors are welcome and British Columbians are encouraged to explore the province, Tourism Kelowna is thrilled.

“The important and very valid health restrictions kicked in and so that meant that visitor flow absolutely stopped in our area,” says CEO of Tourism Kelowna Lisanne Ballantyne. “Phase 3 being announced was a watershed moment so it meant that it was now allowable for travel within the province.”

Ballantyne says the tour companies are ready to serve visitors and “it’s business as usual, but usual just looks a little bit different.”

“Everyone in the tourism business felt immediately, a sense of optimism because the phones started ringing, visitors started arriving, people started to book attractions, booking hotel rooms.”

And now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing and people are visiting, staff at Ogopogo Parasail are thrilled to welcome back customers safely.

“I think [COVID-19] made our opening a little bit slower, but once we were getting into the busier season, the restrictions were starting to lift anyways so it actually worked out quite well with the timing,” says Joel Devries with Ogopogo Parasail.

For parasailing, staff are operating two separate boats when it’s busy to ensure people are more distanced than they normally would be. Lifejackets are sanitized after each use and hand sanitizer is provided before and after the services.

Year-long virus-related shutdown urged for Okanagan tourism centre

 

Kangaroo farm
The visitor centre in Lake Country should be shut down for the entire year because of the coronavirus pandemic, town staff say. A kangaroo farm is one of the popular attractions in the Lake Country area.

The visitor information centre in Lake Country should be closed for the entire year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, town council will hear Tuesday.

Council should suspend the service, provided by the chamber of commerce through a $28,000 contract, as a way of trying to slow the spread of COVID-19, town officials say.

The centre relies heavily on “in-person gatherings and the sharing of physical space and materials,” reads part of a report to council from planning director Jamie McEwan.

“It is unlikely that this year the service can be provided with full value to the public” given the physical distancing regulations now in effect, McEwan says.

“Given the experiences around the world, Canada is still likely in the early stages of combating COVID-19 and can expect at least five to six months of attempting to limit physical interactions in public,” McEwan says.

Many tourism-related organizations are suspending promotional activities. Tourism Kelowna has shuttered its downtown information centre, and the Penticton Visitor Centre is also closed.

Popular tourism attractions in the Lake Country area include a kangaroo farm and a zip line; notices on websites for both businesses state their openings are delayed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The most scenic parts of the Okanagan Rail Trail, a long-distance hiking and biking corridor, pass through Lake Country along lakeshores and through farmland.

If Lake Country doesn’t shut its visitor centre, McEwan warns, the town could face legal repercussions.

“Funding a service that may put people at risk during this COVID-19 pandemic may present a risk to the district both legally and financially, on top of the greater community health risk,” he says. “The service is not considered essential.”

Under terms of the town’s contract with the chamber of commerce, funding for Lake Country’s visitor centre can be cancelled for any reason with the provision of 60 days’ notice.

Tourism struggles in Peachland despite idyllic setting

Rattlesnake Island swim
A long-running swim across Okanagan Lake is one of Peachland’s most successful seasonal events. Other festivals have been short-lived or been cancelled in advance.

Peachland should be more than a pit stop for travellers, members of the town’s tourism committee believe.

The town of 5,500 people has one strip mall, anchored by a gas station and grocery store, on Highway 97.

But its downtown core, with a variety of shops and restaurants on Beach Avenue, has little visibility from the highway.

“There needs to be better signage directing people to downtown,” the town’s tourism promotion committee says in its most recent report. “The business signage on the highway is not comprehensive and some of it is out of date, with old signs.”

Committee members, led by town councillor Pam Cunningham, suggest the municipality look at installing some kind of eye-catching electronic signage along the highway, similar to those that direct highway travellers into the downtown areas of Summerland and Lake Country.

Despite its idyllic setting along the shore of Okanagan Lake, tourism-related projects in Peachland have had something of an uneven history in recent years.

A paddle festival lasted only one year, a scarecrow festival lasted two years, an Oktoberfest festival was cancelled before it began due to poor ticket sales, and a Long Table festival planned for this August has already been cancelled.

Local residents Bruce and Linda Lea Klippenstein recently approached the tourism committee to ask its support for Lake Okanagan Ogopogo Marketing Society, described as a way to profit from the legendary serpent.

“The Klippensteins have done a great deal of work on their project, however we felt the idea had not been developed enough to support at this time,” tourism committee members say.

Ideas being considered include proclaiming the town to be the Canadian home of ice wine, as the luxury drink’s first Canadian production was in Peachland, and promoting some kind of festival based around public art sculptures.