As general manager of the Crystal Cove Beach Resort in Tofino and chair of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, J.J. Belanger sees both the big and the small picture these days when it comes to the effects of wildfires on tourism.
Since the start of the human-caused Cameron Bluffs fire near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island’s west coast on June 3, Belanger has seen bookings drop by 60 per cent because the fire has forced officials to close the only major highway connecting Tofino with places east of Port Alberni.
Belanger has also gained first-hand experience with the forest service road that serves as a detour for commercial vehicles as well as those heading from and to Port Alberni for essential travel.
“I came in on the back way yesterday from Victoria and it actually wasn’t bad,” he said in an interview with Black Press Media on Monday (June 12). “It’s passable.”
I wouldn’t take your Porsche 911 on it, but the road is not that bad. It’s like going down a dirt road pretty much. There are a few pinch points, obviously, with single-lane bridges and sometimes, when you come up against a log truck, which I did yesterday, you got to pull off on the side, but there is at least room to do that.”
This type of optimism also runs through Belanger’s broader assessment of the tourism season ahead. Rain over the weekend has dampened the fire risk across the southern part of the province, he said.
“The main fires of concern are up in northern B.C. and in the Peace River region…most of those areas don’t really see an increase in tourism until the summer months when people are travelling up toward the Alaska Highway.”
Belanger added that most tourists ultimately adjust their plans as it has been the case many of his guests and he is confident that this year’s tourism season will be strong.
“I think people are still going away, it is just that they are changing their plans,” he said. “Now, if it was to become a fire season like 2017, 2018, where everything gets depicted on the news as the province being on fire, that’s going to have a massive effect on tourism in the summer.”
Ultimately though, Belanger is realistic about the current situation.
“We live in a province that is suffering greatly because of climate change, from water shortages on the Sunshine Coast and wildfires starting way earlier than normal,” he said. “This is something we are going to have to adapt to.”
That includes developing alternatives to existing transportation routes. As a representative example, he once again pointed to the situation in his backyard. People travelling from and to Port Alberni and places west need an alternative, Belanger said.
“One road in and one road out does not bode well, when a town runs out of gas and is running out of food,” Belanger said.
Belanger also called on government to help shore up communities and areas that are dealing with water shortages.
“Providing the necessities of life to communities is a key point where we need to focus,” he said.
Belanger praised provincial fire-fighting efforts, but also expressed support for a province-wide campfire ban from May through October to help those efforts. He also wondered about the long-term outlook in terms of available resources to fight fires.
“The challenge is do we have the resources available as this climate change crisis increases year over year?” he asked.
This and countless other questions loom in the background as the provincial tourism industry specifically and the rest of the province prepare for a future increasingly shaped by climate change.
For now, Belanger keeps an eye on the weather forecast while remaining confident about what lies ahead.
“I just hope that this fire situation on Highway 4 gets under control and we can re-open the road because if we do, we will see a very busy summer on the West Coast,” he said. “If the Interior get stay cool and wet for the summer, we will see a very strong tourism season there and if we can get the fires under control in the north, again, we will see a very strong tourism season with people heading up to Alaska.”
Provincial officials will update the status of Highway 4 on Tuesday (June 13) at noon.