The Okanagan Thompson tourism sector is scrambling to mitigate the impact of the travel restriction ban in the region imposed by the provincial government due to wildfires.
“We are full steam ahead to welcome people everywhere,” said Ellen Walker-Matthews, chief executive officer of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association.
Besides rumours that Highway 97 was closed to traffic between Peachland and Lake Country which was never true, Walker-Matthews said hotel managers are calling people who cancelled reservations when the travel restriction ban was adopted Friday, Aug. 25, and removed three days later.
“It is absolutely not true our hotels are closed or that there is not any rooms because of the fire evacuees needing accommodation,” she said.
But she conceded many people who cancelled their reservations have already made other vacation plans, and the cancellation or postponement of events like the Penticton Ironman, Denim on the Diamond festival and the Rocky Mountain Train stops in Kamloops were a “massive hit” for local tour operators.
“It was a massive hit for our industry across the region at a time when our mid and small size business operators are relying on these weeks in August and leading into September to carry them through the winter,” she said.
She said the summer tourism season had not been a banner one leading into the outbreak of the Shuswap and Central Okanagan wildfires earlier this week.
She said the impact of inflation on travel costs and the opportunity for Canadians to travel to Europe free of any COVID pandemic restrictions has been felt in the Thompson Okanagan region.
“We are having what I would call a good, solid summer but it has not been a banner summer,” she said.
Walker-Matthews said the regional and provincial tourism marketing agencies will be working on marketing campaign initiatives in the immediate days ahead to try and salvage the potential tourism revenue until the end of September.
“I think the message we want to get out there is the smoke has dissipated and we have blue skies and sunshine still for the next month for people to travel here and enjoy,” she said.
Besides the miscommunication about hotel room availability, comments by Bowinn Ma, Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, about “disaster tourism” seekers to stay away were also not helpful, she said.
“That term is one I had never heard of before. I heard that but not sure where it was coming from,” she said.
Walker-Matthews said tourists are becoming accustomed to weather extreme related events, but will still be drawn to the Thompson-Okanagan region for all it has to offer vacationers.
“You can look what is happening here, but the same thing is going on in Greece, in Maui, Australia, California, so it is a worldwide issue we all need to address.”