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Banff Approaches Winter with Hope and Caution for Tourism

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From atop Sulphur Mountain you can gaze on the spectacular view of the town of Banff and its surrounding peaks. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

Embracing a challenge is what Banff is all about.

In 2020, the test of navigating a pandemic has been far greater than conquering any slalom course. Visitation to the national park in July and August — two of the prime months for tourism revenue — was 1.8 million in 2020, down from 4 million for the same period in 2019.

No question, battling the ramifications of COVID-19 has seemed unconquerable at times. Still, the Banff and Lake Louise tourism industry is determined to avoid sacrificing winter to the pandemic.

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Spending more time indoors isn’t so bad when you can savour a sweet platter of Christmas-themed treats like this one at Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

To succeed, the destination — ranked No. 1 on the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2020 list — has shifted much of its programming to adhere to restrictions on travel and capacity. Its winter schedule is a balance of responsibility and creativity that it hopes will compel Canadians to visit when it’s safe to do so. Initiatives include a physically distanced Christmas celebration, the SnowDays ice-sculpting competition that is usually international but will be Canada-only for the first time, and public areas focused on fastidiousness rather than uninhibited revelry.

Despite all of the COVID-19 news that indicates accelerating spread in Canada, Banff and Lake Louise is among the tourism spots that have adapted to public-health policies to contain the spread, proving that taking on an obstacle isn’t just for athletes, but business owners and marketers as well.

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The frozen lakes and rivers in Banff and Lake Louise allow for physical-distanced winter fun, including ice skating, sledding, and blissful hikes. Here, iced-over Two Jack Lake provides a trail beneath the Rocky Mountains. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

“This winter will be very important to our businesses in destination. Which is why safety is the number one priority — we’ve been able to keep COVID-19 breakouts away from our destination. We’re confident with the safety protocols the ski resorts, accommodation sector and all businesses have in place. We need to remain vigilant,” Angela Anderson, director of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism’s media and communications, said in an email interview. “All that said, we’re confident that we have what people are looking for right now — wide open spaces, nature, outdoors, and mental wellness that comes with all of that. As long as we can all stay safe, we’re looking forward to welcoming Canadians this winter.”

During a recent virtual tour for the travel media, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, and some of its partner businesses, outlined new attractions in the area for the winter, including:

  • 480 acres of added terrain for skiers and snowboarders at Lake Louise Ski Resort, plus a Summit Chair that carries them to the peak in less than four minutes; 
  • A Christmas Lighting Trail with illuminated art installations that include 10-foot images of bears and wolves.

Initiatives such as a Hot Chocolate Trail were postponed because of the increase in COVID-19 cases in Alberta and some restaurants temporarily closed when the provincial government introduced new restrictions this week. The ski industry was also hurt when November’s FIS World Cup skiing competition was cancelled.

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In 2020, the trails of Banff are as empty as they’ve been in decades, but the beauty is as pristine as ever. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

But some good news has arrived. Banff and Lake Louise has benefitted from outstanding early snowfall, which led to the earliest ski season opening in its history on October 29. Mother Nature has continued its help, dropping 10 centimetres (four inches) of snow on the peaks on Wednesday. For now, the fresh powder has attracted Albertans to the slopes. When the current spike in COVID-19 cases eases, there is hope the new rapid-testing program put in place at the Calgary International Airport will draw international travellers wanting to take advantage of the snow conditions and the lack of activity on the hills.

MORE BANFF: 135 Years Later, It Still Mesmerizes

Foreign air passengers who arrive directly to Calgary have the option of taking the rapid test and being notified within 48 hours of their result. Should they test negative for the novel coronavirus, they can avoid a 14-day quarantine and be able to travel within Alberta, while being tested again during their stay. The Calgary airport, which is 90 minutes southeast of Banff, is the first in Canada to offer rapid testing.

Winter-sports lovers who venture to the Alberta jewel will help to make up for the drastic shortfall in revenue in 2020. While the number of visitors through the park gates has remained roughly the same as previous years, despite the slow traffic in July and August, Anderson says hotel occupancy was about 50 per cent in the summer compared to 90 per cent in previous years. That figure is a stark indication of the pandemic’s impact. Foreign travellers book hotel rooms while Canadians may stay with family or friends, or plan day trips from Calgary.

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Picturesque Lake Minnewanka features one of the showcase views of Banff and Lake Louise. (Adrian Brijbassi file photo for Vacay.ca)

The turnaround for businesses is being anticipated, however. With vaccines on the way, there is a sense that we all need to just hang on for the inoculations to begin, which may happen soon enough to propel robust spring-skiing bookings. In a year that has sent shivers throughout the world, it feels surprising that winter would be the season to spark optimism and the glimmers of a “light at the end of the tunnel”. It’s 2020, though, and after feeling like we’ve been slushing endlessly uphill, the glee of just thinking you could soon be descending the Banff peaks is enough to produce a healthy sigh of relief.

MORE ABOUT VISITING BANFF DURING THE PANDEMIC

Travellers should consult the Banff & Lake Louise Tourism’s travel information page for the latest pandemic updates in the area. Visitors are also encouraged to arrive prepared with their own “COVID-19 kits” that would include a mask and hand-sanitizer or wipes. Anyone who is not feeling well should stay home and, at the least, perform a self-assessment test based on the their public-health guidelines of their province.

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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