International travellers are an important part of tourism in Alberta during bustling summers. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, small tourism businesses are struggling to stay afloat, relying exclusively on domestic visitors.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down Canada in March, there was a 90 per cent decrease in international visitors to Alberta over the summer months, compared to the 2019 summer season. For businesses that rely on international travellers, this was a huge blow.
Tony Pietromonaco is the CEO of Round the Block Tour. Although his company offers shuttle and bus tours to popular Alberta locations such as Banff and Drumheller during both the summer and winter, Pietromonaco says that most of their revenue is gained during the summer months. With most of this summer being lost to COVID-19, Pietrromonaco felt the impact firsthand. He says that his business cameto a complete halt over the summer.
“Even though we tried different marketing strategies and solutions, the touring portion of the business was right down to zero. Nothing.”
Pietromonaco wasn’t the only one to suffer from this lost economic force. Many businesses in Alberta, especially around the towns of Banff and Canmore —which normally rely on summer business—found themselves in the same situation as Pietromonaco.
Bill Fisher, executive director of the Banff-Canmore Community Foundation, says these areas were hit particularly hard.
“The town of Banff went from almost total employment to an 85 per cent unemployment rate in a total of two weeks because of the shut down of the borders,” he says. “As you can imagine, with a community where the economic driver is tourism, one of the biggest revenue generators is international travel and with the lack of those visitors, it has a significant impact on not only businesses but also the social services in the valley,”
Despite this bleak situation, some businesses managed to navigate the storm with the help of residents and Alberta-based visitors.
Thomas Couture, owner of Banff Cycle, notes that despite uncertainty of the months prior to summer, Banff Cycle managed to be profitable through the midst of the pandemic. Couture even liquidated a few of his bikes prior to the summer season, in the fear that they wouldn’t be used. Instead, Canadians came in bunches to Banff.
“In the past, our client base was 75 per cent American and European and 25 per cent Canadian. Without those visitors here, I had extrapolated that would be the main challenge,” Couture explains. “But the Canadians did come, and they supported us in an amazing way. At the end of the day, we probably saw our numbers down 15 per cent, which was in line with the visitor count to Banff National Park, but Canadians definitely came out to support us.”
Despite certain businesses’ success in the face of adversity, many business owners like Pietromonaco are still caught in the unfortunate situation the pandemic forced upon the province.
“The test now is going to be between January and February, seeing if what we’re doing is going to be able to push us to next summer,” Pietromonaco says.
Fisher says the community he serves is strong and is waiting for the day when they’ll be able to welcome back international visitors.
“It’s certainly been a challenge for us and a big change in how we operated in the past, but we’ve learned how important it is to collaborate with other charities and organizations, and there are many positives that can be taken away from what has been a very challenging situation for the past six months,” says Fisher.
“We are a resilient community, and we will get through this, hopefully coming out even stronger, and becoming a better place for visitors from Canada and around the world.”