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Whistler’s outdoor adventure companies looking to regional market for when business resumes

Operators awaiting word from province to reopen safely
Whistler outdoor adventure tour operators have already seen numerous international bookings cancelled this summer, and are hopeful pent-up demand from the regional market can help shore up some of those losses. Facebook photo / The Adventure Group

UPDATE: Since this story was published, Canadian Wilderness Adventures announced it was resuming its ATV, buggy, jeep and e-bike tours of the Callaghan, along with its canoe tours of the River of Golden Dreams as of May 28. The article follows in its original form.]

Whistler's natural surroundings have always been the key attraction for visitors from around the world, but with international travel ground to a halt for the foreseeable future, local adventure tour operators are hopeful the regional market will help shore up some of the losses caused by COVID-19.

“We’re an add-on so we find that our customers are completely in sync with whoever is coming to the resort, so if Whistler invites regional people back and they’re happy to come, then [we will welcome them]. Typically, like in the past, we’ve had a lot of regional customers—and even locals,” said Allan Crawford, president of Canadian Wilderness Adventures (CWA), which offers a range of adventure-based activities, such as ATV, canoe and e-bike tours.

Like any tourism-reliant business, CWA was hit hard by the pandemic, forced to lay off staff before Ottawa’s wage subsidy kicked in (some staff have since been brought back on).

“I think it’s all manageable now, but at the time, the fear of the unknown was quite shocking,” Crawford noted.

While it’s not likely to make up the “big, massive hit” he has already suffered, Eric Wight of Backroads Whistler, which offers watersports, boat rentals and river tours, is hopeful “pent-up demand” from the regional market will lead British Columbians to choose Whistler once it is safe to do so.

“There’s definitely pent-up demand, but there are a lot of great places to go visit in beautiful B.C.,” he said. “That they can’t go across the [Canada-U.S.] border is going to help our regional visits, but it won’t make it up.”

And while international bookings have been “cancelling fast and furious,” Wight said he is starting to get inquiries from American clients asking when business might resume.

“Our American cancellations are pretty numerous. But the Pacific Northwest, they can move quicker. When you’re coming from Europe, you’ve got to have a month or two notice, so we’ve lost all our European bookings and all our group bookings for spring and fall,” he explained. “American bookings, they’re starting to talk to us, like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Are you gonna be there? We want to go down the river.’”

Crawford was of a similar mind, believing that scenic places like Whistler, the Okanagan and Tofino will be popular destinations for the rubber tire market as B.C. moves through the different stages of recovery.

“People have had a few months to reflect and I think you’re going to see the importance maybe more than ever of getting back to nature. That’s what we provide,” he added.

Crawford said the company has been taking every precaution to ensure the safety of guests for when operations resume, including the purchase of a UV cabinet used to kill any lingering bacteria on the gear the company provides to guests.

“We are currently reviewing best practices and building operational protocols accordingly,” he said, adding that CWA would not resume operations until B.C. lifts the province-wide state of emergency.

At The Adventure Group, the company is “working with external specialists to ensure that when we do open that we are taking every possible step to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread,” wrote sales and marketing director Jason Langlois in an email.

Langlois noted the operator is listening to all levels of government to determine the best time to reopen, but is hopeful its Vallea Lumina, Superfly Ziplines, Wedge Rafting and Treetop Adventure activities will resume with special modifications in mid- to late June.