While a cold, rainy spring slowed the pace of tourism across the Columbia Valley, warmer weather in July and August picked it back up.
Several area tourism operators are reporting measurable increases in visitor traffic this summer — with most of the uptick coming as temperatures started to rise.
“Every time it’s nice and sunny we get more visitors coming through, absolutely,” says Heather Perkull, assistant manager at the Radium Hot Springs Visitor Information Centre. “It was a quieter June because it was so wet, then as soon as the heat started coming in July we got quite a lot more people coming through.”
As of last week, about 13,000 people had come to the visitor centre in July and August. It’s a 12 per cent increase over the previous year, which Perkull attributes to Alberta visitors looking for vacation destinations close to home.
While it’s an improvement over 2010, Perkull notes it’s still well below the numbers the centre saw before the economic downturn hit the valley.
“Last year was one of the slower years that we’ve had, we’re definitely rebounding from that,” she says. “But we’re nowhere near the 2008 numbers that we have seen. But we’re getting there.”
At Fairmont Hot Springs, prairie visitors have also played a major role in summer traffic — but marketing director Marke Dickson says many of the resort’s guests are coming from previously untapped parts of the region.
“We’ve put a lot of our marketing resource, a lot of our time and our thought into new markets for us,” he explains. “We spent a lot of time in northern Alberta and in Saskatchewan and we’re seeing the returns from that now.”
While Dickson says the weather also kept visitors from flocking to the resort in May and June, the back half of the summer has been record breaking.
“There’s rumblings of a poor summer in the valley, but I think most of the resort properties would tell you that it’s been a really good summer,” he says.
“July was a record for this resort. We’ve had our best July on record and August is hitting the same way, so I think overall we’re going to come out of this ahead of last year and certainly better than several years before.”
Dickson says he’s spoken to other businesses and tourism operators in the valley who are also expressing some optimism about the summer, after declines in previous years.
“Most of us came into this year and thought if we were flat to 2010 we’d be doing okay,” he says.
“We expected a little bit of a longer drop off than just a one year dip. And certainly in terms of our resort, last year was about as challenging as anybody can remember, and this year is significantly better.”
In addition to the resort’s own work, Dickson attributes the climb in numbers around the valley to work being done by various tourism associations across the area.
“I think there’s a much more cohesive effort now than we’ve seen for a number of years,” he says.
However, the summer hasn’t shown growth for every organization in the region.
Parks Canada spokesman Omar McDadi reports pass sales for Kootenay National Park were 10 per cent lower this year between April and July 31.
In the same period, visits to the Radium Hot Pools also came in six per cent lower than in 2010, with 101,400 visiting the hot springs last year, compared to 95,258 in 2011.
Like others in the industry, McDadi suspects the numbers are weather related — but he says the Kootenay National Park numbers may not give a complete picture of summer traffic.
“Park pass sales in the region, including Yoho and Lake Louise, are actually up 9.2 per cent,” he says.
“Many of these visitors would be going to multiple parks, including Kootenay.”