Wildfires, climate change creating challenges for Canadian tourism industry

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Canada’s tourism industry is trying to put on its Sunday best this week, showcasing itself to more than 500 international travel agents and tour operators at the largest annual tourism convention in Canada.

But as Rendez-vous Canada is taking place at the Edmonton Convention Centre, one of the biggest challenges Canada’s tourism industry is facing is playing out in technicolour just a few hundred kilometres away: wildfires.

“Climate change is an essential threat to Canadian tourism, to their reputation and that’s what we’re seeing,” said federal Tourism Minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada.

Hot, dry weather in Western Canada, exacerbated by climate change, sparked a massive fire last week southwest of Fort McMurray. This week it is forcing more than 6,000 people from their homes.

Some of them are the same residents whose houses were razed by a major wildfire in the same city just eight years ago.

In 2023, Canada recorded its worst wildfire season ever, with more than 6,400 fires burning more than 150,000 square kilometres in almost every province and territory.

This season started out a little slower, but turned quickly over the weekend with major out-of-control fires forcing evacuations and threatening cities and towns in both British Columbia and Alberta.

Very large plumes of smoke emerge from the ground due to a wildfire.
The west flank of the Parker Lake fire near Fort Nelson, B.C., is pictured on Monday afternoon. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said the direct impact of wildfires is hard enough.

But making matters worse is the fact that many people around the world see headlines about Canada being on fire, she said, then think nowhere in the country is safe to visit.

“There are fires right now in northern parts of Alberta and British Columbia, but that doesn’t mean that all of Canada stops welcoming visitors from around the world,” she said.

“The biggest challenge we had actually [last year] was how big the fires are by comparison to how big our country is. People are… not understanding how big Canada is and that the whole country is not on fire.”

Last summer, tourism operators in southwestern Ontario told her about cancellations due to fires largely more than 3,500 kilometres away in B.C., she said.

As fires ravaged parts of eight provinces in June 2023, Destination Canada commissioned a survey of Americans. It found among those who were likely to take a trip to Canada in the next six months, more than half were rethinking their plans.

Two-thirds of Americans planning a trip to Canada said the fires would have at least some impact on their plans, and almost 40 per cent said the fires would have a “large impact.”

Americans account for about two-thirds of international visitors to Canada.

Martinez Ferrada said sometimes the solution is to be mindful of what is being said about Canada in places which typically send a lot of tourists to Canada. Last summer, for instance, she said Germany issued a travel advisory warning its citizens against travel to Canada, and B.C. in particular, because of the wildfires.

One option is to reach out to Germany and say “you know Canada is big, maybe you can be more specific,” she said.

“When you think about Europe, Canada is four times [the size of] Europe. So you wouldn’t put an ad for the whole of Europe, right?”

More than just fires

The concerns reach beyond just fires. Warmer winters are harming cold-season tourism as well. The famous Rideau Canal stayed closed in 2023, and barely opened at all this year, because it was too warm. The ice hotel in Quebec City, a unique draw for tourism, was melting, said Martinez Ferrada.

Potter said the changing weather patterns have made some travellers more careful about booking, and many delay their bookings until they are certain things will be fine weather-wise. She said that makes it hard for operators to plan staffing.

On top of all that, some operators have also been finding insurance more expensive — if they can even secure it — as the risks from severe weather force the insurance industry to rethink costs.

Craig Stewart, vice-president of climate change and federal issues for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said major international reinsurers, who backstop many Canadian insurance policies, have recalculated the risk profile for Canada following several major weather catastrophes.

That raised insurance costs for some, while others couldn’t get insurance at all.

Stewart said the insurance bureau created an internal task force to help companies that can’t find insurance track down a solution, and since 2020 more than 3,100 businesses have reached out for help. Many of them are tourism-related including hotels, restaurants, heritage properties, and tourist resorts.

Martinez Ferrada said the issue is the main topic of conversation among tourism ministers and it’s a problem that has no miracle cure.

“It’s not an instant switch,” she said. “We need to just work at it.”

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