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.