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Wildfires scared away summer tourists; how to get them back in fall

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The Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association say now is a crucial time to rethink tourist strategies if small businesses are going to survive wildfire season.

As the last few weeks of the tourist season roll to a close, business owners are left reeling from a lack of visitors during what is supposed to be the Okanagan’s busiest time of year.  

The Central Okanagan wildfires have brought tourism to a screeching halt. Despite the partial lifting of the recent travel ban, the fires are continuing to burn, and the smoky and unstable conditions have been keeping tourists away. 

Ellen Walker-Matthews, CEO of the association, told that they cannot yet provide exact numbers, but they know the financial loss from the wildfires will be dramatic.

“We lost a number of events, such as Ironman Canada, which we know has a value (of) at least $15 million to the South Okanagan,” she said. “A lot of our providers of wine touring or hiking and cycling, all of those very important ancillary activities besides just the accommodators, have all found themselves with a loss of business.”

Walker-Matthews said that her organization is working closely with the provincial government to get funding to support smaller businesses and help bring tourism back.

“For some of the smaller operators, without some cash injection they will not survive,” she said. “So, we're working closely with Destination BC and the province on some initiatives to bring back visitors to the region.”

Walker-Matthews explained that the new initiative will signal to tourists that the Okanagan will remain open for business in the fall. 

“[It will be] a big awareness campaign around the fact that we are open for business and [tourists] don't have to stay away because people are uncertain as to whether or not they're allowed to travel. We are messaging out from the community that in fact, we welcome and encourage you to come and visit us and to help our small and medium sized businesses have a season that they can survive on,” she said.

Michael Ballingall, Chair of the association and Senior Vice President of Big White Ski Resort, told that now isn’t the right time to be inviting tourists to back to the Okanagan.

“Tourists have literally evacuated the Central Okanagan, and rightfully so,” he said. “The Central Okanagan is on fire. There's smoke in the valley. It's not the time to be inviting people to come and visit us today. So, we've lost two weeks of revenue in our peak season. We've lost the long weekend, but the fires will be put out.”

Ballingall said the association met with 42 stakeholders in the South Okanagan and 50 Stakeholders in the Central Okanagan to discuss the impact of the travel ban and the fires.

“And what we heard from these people is a definite call to government that we're going to need help,” Ballingall said.

Ballingall said he believes people will still be interested in visiting the region during the fall.

“Kids will go back to school and we will have availability for people to come for wine tours, for the fall wine festivals, for fall golf,” he said. “The lake's still warm. The Central Okanagan and the Thompson Okanagan is a wonderful place to visit in the fall. The messaging and the timing of the messaging is when it's right and when it's safe and when the fires have diminished.”

Kimberly Hundertmark at Okanagan Wine Festivals told that her business will be following the tourism association’s lead and switching its programming to lean more into the autumn season.

“We're hoping that there will be a shift,” she said. “Those that were here or have been planning to come here are going to recognize that there's still opportunity for weather and great pricing and great packages available in October.”

Hundertmark said she thinks the shift will work in her business’s favour and that, despite the loss of visitors, the support and good nature of the community makes her hopeful for the future.

“We can't kid ourselves into thinking that this isn't going to have long-term effects. You know, the last two weeks of August typically are the busiest and families have gone home,” she said. “But the thing is, as a community, the industry is really holding together and being very positive and trying to be proactive rather than reactive.”

“We always bounce back because of the strength of the community and speaking with one voice and knowing that it is an important asset to particularly the Okanagan Valley,” Hundertmark said. “We want to make sure that we're leading by example and we're showing our generosity and our kindness to the people around us. That's the most important thing.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Georgina Whitehouse or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.


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