As the last long weekend of the summer approaches, tourism operators in the Thompson-Okanagan are desperately hoping they will see an influx of visitors.
Small businesses that rely on tourists are reeling due to the impact of the wildfires in the Southern Interior.
“Everyone is definitely kinda on their knees with this one, I think. It’s a real blow,” says Rob Wittmer, the owner of Okanagan Parasail and Kelowna Parasail.
He and others, like Axe Monkeys in Kelowna, are losing thousands in refunds. People are cancelling reservations well into September, even though the BC government rescinded a ban on non-essential travel to the region last week. Wittmer estimates the sudden drop in business could cost him as much as a third of his gross earnings for this summer.
It comes as many are facing a deadline to pay back federal funding they received to get them through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of small businesses were counting on this summer to pay that back, so we could recover” said Crystal McCauley, of Axe Monkeys. “A huge amount of our sales, people don’t realize, from the 15th (of August) to September 10th is when we start making money. That’s a huge loss.”
She’s not the only one concerned that people outside the region just aren’t getting the message that’s it’s okay to travel here again.
“I’d really like to see some proactive initiatives to tell people hey, we are open. Yes, we’re smoky, the whole province is smoky. But we’re on the eve of a long weekend and there’s no one around,” said Wittmer.
The pleas for help are being heard. Lana Popham, Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport met with stakeholders in the Okanagan on Monday.
“When the message went out for the travel ban, people adhered to it and they left but they are not hearing the message that it’s okay to come back,” explains Ellen Walker-Matthews, CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association.
She says efforts are underway to increase marketing and offer relief to struggling operators. “We’re making recommendations to government about financial aid that we need and that we think will help, as well as marketing dollars to try and get a really immediate campaign into the market.”
The question is whether that aid will come in time.
“We need that now, not months down the road, because a lot of these businesses aren’t going to survive this year,” says McCauley.