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Highway closures, border restrictions hurt B.C. tourism sector

Coalition is urging airlines to increase frequency of trips to Kelowna
Looking south east towards the Monashee mountain range, from a cabin on Big White.

Highway closures and pricey COVID-19 test requirements for Americans to enter Canada are making B.C. tourism operators uneasy about their prospects this winter. 

Torrential rain damaged or washed away about 20 sections of the Coquihalla Highway, according to B.C. Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Rob Fleming, who said he aims to have essential traffic on that corridor by late January. 

That leaves the longer, and meandering, Highway 3 as the main route for Metro Vancouverites to get to the Okanagan. That highway also suffered landslide damage and has been unreliable for non-essential traffic.

Okanagan business owners fear Metro Vancouverites will postpone any plans to visit the region. 

Big White senior vice-president Michael Ballingall told BIV that he and other tourism businesses have asked the B.C. government for clarity on when Highway 3 could be open to the general public.

One idea, he said, is to set aside six or eight hours per day when 18-wheel trucks would not be allowed in the corridor to encourage public travel.

Ballingall said many of his customers bring SUVs full of kids, skis, snowboards and other equipment, and that flying can be expensive and impractical for them.

His resort has consequently had dozens of cancellations for the peak Christmas-through-New Year’s week.

He is urging airlines to fly more frequently to Kelowna with reasonably priced fares. 

“Some things are looking good but airlines don’t have a lot of capacity right now. They don’t have extra aircraft. We’re hearing from customers that have booked flights for their kids to come to the Okanagan Valley to join them at Big White, and it’s $800 a fare. For a family of three, that’s $2,400 to fly to Kelowna from Vancouver.”

BC Hotel Association CEO Ingrid Jarrett has also lobbied airlines to increase flight frequency to Kelowna, and she praised Swoop for adding extra flights between Abbotsford and Kelowna, with fares in the $200 range.

“There is a coalition of tourism and hospitality businesses – ski resorts, airlines, airports, the BC Hotel Association, the Tourism Industry Association of BC – that are working on connecting Vancouver and Abbotsford to Kelowna. It has the central airport in the Interior and we want to have added flights, providing competitive pricing, and using larger planes.”

Jarrett added that Interior hoteliers face a dire winter not only because of challenges on the roads, but also because the Canadian government requires Americans and other foreign visitors to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to enter Canada. 

She wants those tests for Americans to be waived, even though the federal government has been further restricting requirements for visitors, not loosening them.

Ottawa in late November put in place a ban on foreign nationals who had travelled through seven countries in southern Africa. That ban has since been expanded to include 10 African nations. 

Few people, comparatively, enter B.C. from southern African countries.

The bigger new federal government restriction on travel announced last week was that Ottawa would require all non-American foreigners to provide negative PCR tests after they arrive in Canada, in addition to showing negative tests before they get on planes.

Logistics on that, and a start date for the initiative, have yet to be disclosed, although Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said on the weekend that the new test requirements would be put into effect within days. He sounded yesterday as though the policy was being enacted in at least some Canadian airports. 

PCR tests usually start at around $200 and can cost more than $500 for speedy results. The Canadian government sounded as though it would likely cover the cost of tests done post-arrival, but that is not the case for required tests done before the foreign visitors board flights to Canada.

Those expenses are deterring individual tourists and corporate bookings, Jarrett said.

“We’re seeing all kinds of events that are on the books for 2022, and organizers are now looking at alternative destinations,” Jarrett said.

Hoteliers in Metro Vancouver say that compared to pre-pandemic, few American visitors have booked rooms since the Canadian government on September 7 started to allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to visit for leisure purposes.

The 97,506 Americans who entered Canada through B.C. border crossings in September represented a more than five-fold increase over the 18,083 U.S. visitors in September 2020, but less than 18.3% of the 533,664 Americans who crossed the border in September 2019.

“We’d love to see the PCR testing, or any requirements, lifted for Americans who are properly vaccinated,” said Wall Centre regional director of sales and marketing Sean Antonson. 

He added, however, that the Omicron variant is something to watch.

The U.S. on Dec. 6 started requiring that all foreign visitors show either proof of a negative COVID-19 test – PCR or rapid antigen – in order to enter the country by air, or to show documentation showing that the visitors have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days. Land borders do not carry that requirement.

This restriction underscores that countries around the world are taking new measures in the wake of the Omicron variant's emergence.

JW Marriott Parq Vancouver sales and marketing executive Jorin McSween agreed with Antonson that the number of Americans visiting Canada is likely to increase in time.

He added that corporate event bookings are strong at his hotel, and that he has not yet seen many cancellations.

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