Tourism operators struggle to bounce back after Wells Gray Park closures

By Jill Sperling
September 13, 2017 - 5:14pm Updated: September 13, 2017 - 6:06pm

CLEARWATER, B.C. — Wells Gray Provincial Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the province, attracting tourists from far and near, and Clearwater reaps the benefits. 

"Tourism is probably the second most economic driver for Clearwater and Wells Gray country," said Tourism Wells Gray Marketing Manager Stephanie Molina. 

For a large portion of what is normally the park's busiest season, wildfire risk prevented visits to some of Wells Gray's most spectacular sights. 

Fires sparked across the province in July, marking the beginning of the most volatile wildfire season on record for B.C. The extreme fire danger rating forced a two week closure of Wells Gray Provincial Park. 

Shortly after re-opening, a backcountry closure restricted access to much of the park. 

"This summer I would say that the impact has definitely been significant on our tourism operators, guiding businesses, accomodations, as well as the other businesses that benefit from tourism in our town," Molina said. 

According to Clearwater Mayor John Harwood, the difficult season is likely to have a last impact. 

"Some of the companies decided that Wells Gray Park wouldn't be on their future plans for the next three, four, five years, because they've cancelled those kinds of reservations and long-term tours, and that has to be rebuilt," Harwood said. "That takes a long time to build that up, and so we must come up with strategies, I believe, that would reflect maybe a more manageable approach to a total shut down."

A study conducted in 2012 determined the economic impact of tourism on Clearwater to be $21 million. Molina figures that amount has grown every year as tourism numbers increase, but with the park closed for nearly a quarter of the season tourism operators have taken a big hit. 

"It's just a few months that these operators have to generate their income for the entire year," Molina said. "We're looking at mostly June, July, August, and some of September. The park itself was closed for most of July." 

Despite the park closures, some business managed to thrive. 

Jon Kreke, owner of Dutch Lake Resort, says the summer was very busy. 

"We did have a number of cancellations for cabins, and had to return deposits and fees already paid, but in general people were still coming, we likely will have one of our busiest years ever." 

Those who operate inside the park were less fortunate. Johan Raes of Helmcken Chocolates and Waffles operates a stand near Spahat Falls in Wells Gray Park. He says his business took a hit during the July closure. 

"This is two and a half weeks that we can never win back, you know," Raes said. "Even now the amount of tourists has dropped so dramatically." 

The park is now completely open, and Tourism Wells Gray is hoping to see visitors return to the area for the fall season. 

"I just suggest that people come, and visit, enjoy the park," Molina said, "and see what this spectacular area really has to offer them."

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