BC kayak operators navigating rough waters after COVID-19 sinking summer season


This summer season has been short and perhaps mild enough that some tourism operators in British Columbia have been able to weather the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Campgrounds, parks, restaurants, and an array of tourist services have been rewarded to some degree by residents of British Columbia who have explored their backyards and followed the government’s vacation directive.

But the kayak expedition operators certainly haven’t been backed by a wave of local vacationers, said Rick Snowdon, owner of Quadra Island-based Spirit of the West Adventures.

“When you look at the numbers, they’re pretty dire,” Snowdon said, adding that no one involved in tourism was surprised by the ripple effects of COVID-19.

“But I think those of us who are guided tour operators have felt the impacts more than others.”

The offshore adventure tourism sector, so essential to the economy of many small coastal communities in British Columbia, has been hit hard by the disappearance of international visitors this year.

Snowdon, which typically offers eight different multi-day tours, only offered one this summer and its revenue has fallen by 85%.

A rough tally suggests there are at least 57 kayak expedition companies operating along the B.C. coast that could face similar circumstances, Snowdon said.

Typically, Snowdon’s Quadra Island kayaking business employs 45 people and accommodates 1,300 guests who typically spend some of their time and money onsite before or after their tours.

This year, however, it was only able to hire a third of its staff, and that number was only possible thanks to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CUS) program.

And the company has visited around 100 guests, only a handful of whom set foot on Quadra, Snowdon said.

“When you look at the numbers, they’re pretty dire, but I think those of us who are guided tour operators have felt the impacts more than others.” Kayak expedition operator Rick Snowdon on loss of 85 % of revenue due to Covid-19.

Rick Snowdon, owner of Spirit of the West Adventures on Quadra Island, says the pandemic has had a disastrous effect on his business, but he hopes next year will be better. Photo: Chris Bulowski

The tour that was offered was significantly modified to meet pandemic protocols.

This meant only accepting smaller groups that were already together in social bubbles, providing masks for guests, installing barriers if necessary, and adding stations or handwashing facilities.

It was gratifying to make the tours a reality, but the loss of visitors, the start of the late season, additional costs and poor community support for tourism drastically depressed income, Snowdon said.

Revenue drops of 85% are being reported not only by marine tourism operators, but also by the adventure tourism industry as a whole, said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC).

Operators organizing more sophisticated expeditions were hit the hardest, as locals simply did not replace missing international tourists, Judas said.

“The locals have their own kayaks. They know their area well and just won’t pay for that sort of thing because it’s in their backyard, ”Judas said.

“But when people come from other parts of the world, those tours are bucket list items that they’ll gladly pay, and that’s where the income is generated.”

Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC), believes low-interest or no-interest loans will be needed for adventure travel operators to survive the off-season. Photo provided by TIABC.

While adventure tour operators may have taken advantage of some of the federal and provincial COVID-19 relief programs, many will need additional help to survive the winter, added Judas.

“What we really need are working capital grants, or low interest or no interest loans to help these businesses get over the bump,” he said.

“Because otherwise, many of these operators run the risk of closing their doors during the low season.

“And, if you don’t have a tourism supply chain in place, you really don’t have any reason for people to visit and spend their money in the province.

The blows to ecotourism are particularly affecting rural and remote communities, such as the Discovery Islands, Snowdon said.

Income from kayaking expeditions, fishing charters or whale watching provide economic benefits to small coastal communities, whether in hotels and restaurants, or indirectly in grocery and hardware stores. he adds.

“There’s a sort of classic line that most people who work in tourism don’t know they are working in tourism,” Snowdon said.

Kayak expeditions and other ecotourism operators are the driving force behind the “Super, Natural British Columbia” branding and local economies in rural and remote communities. Photo Dave Hartman.

Ecotourism operators are the driving force behind the province’s “Super, Natural British Columbia” brand, which promotes outdoor exploration of stunning wilderness, seas, forests and mountain scenery, a he declared.

The sector accounts for around $ 2 billion in direct spending by tourists, not counting the provisioning services supported by the industry, according to the Wilderness Tourism Association of BC

In addition, adventure tourism supports 26,000 direct full-time jobs and some 40,000 jobs in total.

Beyond bridging loans, the next step in ensuring the sustainability of the sector is to pave the way for the safe return of international tourists, Judas said.

“The real goal for us now is to see if and how we can start welcoming these visitors again,” he said.

But Snowdon doesn’t expect international visitors to return by next summer. He has modest expectations for 2021.

Applying the adaptations and lessons learned from operating safely under new pandemic protocols this summer, he hopes to earn maybe 50% of his past annual income in the coming year.

He also expects the kayak tourism industry to contract and some operators to be lost, but overall it will survive.

“I don’t think there’s a switch that’s going to be flipped and things will get back to normal,” Snowdon said. “You would be too optimistic to think that things will just go backwards.

“If so, that would be great. But if not, we’ll be ready to work without it.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada

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