Visitors are coming to the Columbia Valley in full force this summer, in part thanks to the free parks pass being given out by the Canadian government in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. Photo by Justin Keitch.

Free park pass brings boost to Columbia Valley

Radium to Canal Flats businesses seeing an increase thanks to international focus on Canada

The allure of a free park pass is driving visitors to the Columbia Valley.

Businesses throughout the region have seen a boost in numbers this summer, thanks to the international spotlight on Canada for our sesquicentennial and the desire of Canadians to explore our own backyard.

Not surprisingly, Radium Hot Springs, with its boundaries bordering Kootenay National Park, has seen a rise in visitor numbers. Kent Kebe, Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Centre manager, says the visitor centre has seen a 10 per cent increase over last year at this time.

“There’s been a number of people in the visitor centre that have commented on the free park pass, or we ask and they’ve received the free parks pass,” shares Kebe. “This year has been the most we’ve seen for foreign travelers.”

Visitors to Radium have come from all over the world, says Kebe, adding they have also seen a rise in American visitors. As for business impacts, Kebe says several restaurants reported being even busier last weekend than on a typical long weekend.

“I think it is going to be a banner year for visitors,” says Kebe.

At the other end of our valley in Canal Flats sits Kelly Kask’s gas station and campground. Kask has seen an incredible array of foreign visitors booking to stay in one of his classic airstreams or other vintage trailers.

“It’s opened up doors; it’s giving people a reason to come to Canada,” says Kask of the free park pass.

He has seen a lot of European travelers who are taking upwards of a month to travel Canada, hitting the national parks and heading west, drawn to the allure of hot springs.

“They want to see all the beauty we have to offer,” states Kask. “With the free park pass, there’s this drive, this incentive to explore.”

The campground only opened last July, so they are coming up on 12 months in operation. But already, Kask says they have sold out for every long weekend and have bookings for other weekends both for trailers, which can be found on Air B&B, and for tenting spots.

Marke Dickson, Panorama’s sales and marketing director, shares that their summer bookings are up again this year. Last July and August, Panorama was up 32 per cent for summer bookings over the year prior. This year, they are 17 per cent above last year’s record numbers for July and 14 per cent for August.

“Weekends are full to the brim. Midweek stays, once upon a time, wouldn’t have been in such a demand, now occupancies are lifting through 50 per cent and beyond,” says Dickson.

He credits the Columbia Valley collaborative marketing program with attracting so many visitors to the area, and says Panorama has seen a lot of Albertan tourists who are wanting to come to the mountains, looking at Banff or Canmore for hotel rooms and finding either they couldn’t get a booking or the costs were prohibitive. Looking further afield, visitors are finding the Columbia Valley has more affordable options to stay and explore. Dickson says as a result, resorts such as Panorama and other area businesses have done quite well.

“What do free park passes do? It means Canadians wanted to come to the parks, and of course this is as close as you can get, with sanity, space, and availability and all those things, (to find) really good value,” says Dickson.

For Panorama, that upward booking trend has extended into the winter season too. Dickson reports that winter bookings from international clients is up 100 per cent, “far exceeding our expectations,” says Dickson.

Dickson says the challenge will be to keep the momentum up when the free park pass option is not available anymore.

“The experience needs to be brilliant for the guest. They need to have really good value so the next time, instead of the Bow Valley, they look at the Columbia Valley to go back to by default,” Dickson says.

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