Banff's Champagne Powder Helps Alberta Battle Recession

  • Drop in Canadian dollar stokes 10% rise in visits to park
  • Protection for grizzlies, elk, essential, conservationists say

On Alberta’s mountainous western edge, champagne powder, hot springs and evergreen forests are helping the Canadian province cushion the pain of an oil-induced recession.

Banff Springs Hotel
Banff Springs Hotel
Photographer: Michael Interisano/Design Pics via Getty Images

Banff National Park is on track for record attendance this year as Canada’s oldest park adds new attractions such as heated ski chairlifts and ladders to help climbers scale the peaks. Nearby, the story-book castle that’s home to the Banff Springs Hotel is packed with tourists from around the world. It’s a rare source of positive news in a Canadian province whose economy is forecast to shrink for a second year in 2016.

“The mountain parks are by far the busiest parks, with Banff by far having the most significant tourist use,” said Daniel Watson, chief executive officer of Parks Canada, the federal agency that oversees the world’s largest park system, by phone from Ottawa. “Canada has truly some of the most remarkable places on the planet.”

With Alberta’s oil-driven economy suffering from thousands of job losses, billions of dollars of foregone investment and little prospect of a return to the boom days of the past decade, a 17 percent slide in the Canadian dollar over the past two years is stoking tourism -- and the long-standing debate over development versus conservation in Banff, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

New Attractions

Unlike Alberta’s main oil industry, which accounts for a quarter of the provincial economy and has attracted more than C$100 billion ($74 billion) in investment over the past decade, Banff has been careful to develop at a slower pace. Established in 1885, the park is home to about 80 grizzly bears, elk and alpine wildflowers.

It’s been slowly introducing new adventures for tourists. Attendance is expected to rise 7.4 percent to 3.86 million visitors in the year ending March 31, 2016 after a 10 percent rise in the previous year, according to Parks Canada projections. That’s the most since at least 2000 when the federal agency changed the way it counted visitors.

Moraine Lake at Banff National Park
Moraine Lake at Banff National Park
Photographer: Ji-fang Zhang/Getty Images

Alberta’s provincial government is looking to tourism to help offset a devastating oil and gas slump, aiming to boost revenue from visitors to the province by about 25 percent to more than C$10 billion by 2020. Tourism accounts for about 4.3 percent of the provincial economy with much of the activity happening in Banff.

Glacier Skywalk

Alberta’s tourism marketing agency is looking to the U.S., Quebec and China to bring more non-Albertan tourists to the province, said Royce Chwin, chief executive officer of Travel Alberta. The recession is “certainly a risk, but it depends on how long it lasts,” he said.

The recently installed via ferrata -- a system of ladders on cliffs -- on Mt. Norquay allows the ski hill to bring in summer guests in addition to winter skiers who benefit from the region’s light, powdery snow because of the cold, dry climate.

Glacier Skywalk at Banff National Park
Glacier Skywalk at Banff National Park
Source: ImagineGolf via Getty Images

“It was amazing,” said Michael White, a 52-year-old tech worker from nearby Calgary whose traveling bug has taken him to national parks in Asia and Africa. He tried the via ferrata shortly after it opened in 2014. “Now I take all my friends who come to visit.”

Accor Buys

Brewster Inc., a tourist company started by two brothers in 1892 to guide visitors through the mountains and now owned by Phoenix-based Viad Corp., opened the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park in 2014. The glass deck, stretches over a 280-meter cliff (918-foot) and gives views of the Rocky Mountains. About 288 kilometers from Banff, it’s become another hit among tourists.

Brewster, which has had “high-single digit” annual growth in visitors since 2009, aims to increase repeat visits by constantly updating the interpretive experience similar to museums while maintaining the same development footprint, David McKenna, who heads the travel company, said by phone. “Visitors can come back every three to five years and find something new to re-engage them in the area,” he said.

Global businesses are taking notice. Accor SA, the French hotel operator, agreed to take over the brand and management of the Banff Springs Hotel, one of Canada’s oldest and architecturally most beautiful resorts, last year. Visits to the hotel have remained steady and the hotel is gearing up for the busy summer season, said Angela Moore, a spokeswoman.

Future expansion of tourism in Banff will be “based on the creativity of the providers,” said Karen Sorensen, mayor of the town of Banff, 10 minutes down the hill from Mt. Norquay’s via ferrata. “A shift in tourism is that you don’t just come here for sight-seeing, you come here for sight-doing.”

Housing Shortage

Not everyone is happy with the increasing number of visitors to the park. New construction like the via ferrata and the Skywalk has prompted opposition from environmentalists arguing for protection of grizzly bears.

Greater reliance on tourism in Alberta means the government has to promote other parts of the province to ensure Banff’s environment doesn’t become compromised, said Peter Poole, a conservationist who has worked with indigenous groups to protect land and runs Arctos & Bird, a Banff-based project management firm.

“A core element has to be conservation,” he said in an interview in the town. “If we are selling visitors a false hope and they come to the park and it’s all being turned upside down from development pressures, the visitor are going to leave dismayed and won’t come back.”

In addition, the town of Banff has been plagued by a shortage of housing as growth comes up against limits imposed by Parks Canada, which sets the rules for growth in national parks. That’s been partially alleviated by the release of lands by the park for new housing, said Banff Mayor Sorensen.

For now, business is booming. And unlike the oil and gas industry, which is struggling in foreign markets because of a lack of pipelines or liquefied natural gas facilities, Banff is already winning Asian and European customers.

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