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Banff grappling with high visitation

“We have been trying to sound the alarm on ever increasing visitation and the accompanying lack of planning foresight for well over a decade. We suspect we are close to a tipping point.”

BANFF – Holiday destinations around the world are struggling with an onslaught of visitors  – and Canada’s flagship national park is no exception.

From iconic national parks like Yellowstone in the United States and premiere marine areas such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to famed European cities like Barcelona, Florence and Amsterdam, crowds of tourists are said to be ruining these destinations.

In Banff National Park, which now sees a record-breaking 4.1 million visitors a year, tourists and residents alike complain of being stuck in traffic, battling long line-ups, overcrowding and burgeoning environmental challenges, including threats to the park’s treasured wildlife such as bears and wolves.

Conservation groups say there’s an urgent need for Parks Canada to develop a comprehensive park-wide human use strategy that recognizes limits to growth following years of promoting an increase in tourist numbers without regard for the social and ecological consequences.

“We have been trying to sound the alarm on ever increasing visitation and the accompanying lack of planning foresight for well over a decade,” said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of Bow Valley Naturalists. “We suspect we are close to a tipping point.”

Wealthy retired boomers, regional population growth and a worldwide jump to more middle class incomes are believed to some of the drivers that have led to dramatic increases at popular tourism destinations. In just five years, Banff has jumped from 3.6 million visitors to more than 4.1 million.

In the absence of a park-wide human use strategy, BVN believes current efforts such as a recently announced shuttle bus reservation system for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, though commendable, seem like another Band-Aid solution.



Bunyan said there’s now some acknowledgement of BVN’s concerns from the business community, the Town of Banff and Parks Canada, but still a reluctance to actually accept that there are very real social, experiential and ecological limits to visitation in Banff National Park.

“There is an ecological limit or threshold as to how many visitors and residents we can jam into the park and that threshold may well vary with the time of year, place and activity,” Bunyan said, noting BNV does not pretend to know what that threshold may be.

While the environmental community talks about visitation limits and caps, the tourism industry prefers to speak to managing the experience for visitors.

Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise Tourism, said people tend to immediately shortcut to managing the numbers of people when thinking about visitor management or demand management, rather than looking at other solutions.

“If we just work on numbers, we will miss opportunities to do things more responsibly, to do things in a more creative way,” Bruce said. “We’re looking to manage the experience for visitors.”

While there is frustration about overcrowding at certain hotspots, BLLT points to its net promoter score – an index ranging from minus 100 to plus 100 used as a proxy for gauging overall visitor satisfaction.

The most recent net promoter score was 78 based on about 6,000 surveys, which Bruce said indicates Banff National Park continues to be one of the most desirable places to visit in Canada.

“We’re killing it. It’s an incredibly high score,” Bruce said, noting a score of 50 in the corporate world correlates with sustainable profit.

“We continue to buck the trend and to lead destinations around the world. I’ve only ever seen in the world, once, Iceland in one day at 80.”

In the net promoter score, points were lost over the previous summer around challenges like congestion and wait times at specific places such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake during the months of May through to September.

At peak times, traffic has been stopped from entering Lake Louise at the Trans-Canada Highway, while flaggers are posted at intersections to control and direct traffic. There have been concerns also raised about emergency vehicles having access to Upper Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

“There’s no doubt that that continues to be a pain point for us,” Bruce said.

As part of its response, BLLT has been working with Parks Canada to improve congestion and visitor experience, while also managing visitor expectations at these two iconic destinations by encouraging and promoting public transit.

Bruce pointed to success in getting more and more people out of their private vehicles and onto public transit, with total ridership on all Roam routes up by 20.5 per cent to approximately 1.5 million in 2019 compared to 1.2 million bus riders in 2018.

“We are making a difference and that feels really good,” said Bruce, adding that one of the biggest coups was ridership on the On-It bus service from Calgary to Banff jumping 72 per cent.

“Whether it’s motivated by environmental reasons and being more responsible, or whether it’s motivated by the desire to move with more ease and not have to think about parking, we know both are in play.”

To that end, Parks Canada recently announced an online shuttle bus reservation system to take residents from the park-and-ride lot on the Trans-Canada Highway, about six kilometres east of the hamlet of Lake Louise, to Upper Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

The main road to both lakes will remain open, with both areas providing limited parking – 500 stalls at Upper Lake Louise and 150 parking spaces at Moraine Lake and vehicles only allowed in when others depart.

Approximately 75 per cent of all bus seats for the season from mid-May to mid-October will be available on April 1. The remaining 25 per cent will be released on a rolling two-day out schedule throughout the season, equating to about 900 seats per day becoming available two days beforehand.

Jed Cochrane, Parks Canada’s acting visitor experience manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said long lines to catch buses was the number one complaint Parks Canada heard last summer, adding that most days had line-ups of at least one hour-and-a-half hours long.

“That’s not something we take lightly. We obviously take those types of concerns very seriously because it impacts visitor experience and obviously we don’t want that,” Cochrane said.

“Going forward, that’s the one thing we’re working very hard to try and address and to fix.”

Borrowing a term from biology, BVN prefers to apply the concepts of ecological sustainability to visitation, as well as carrying capacity, which can be loosely defined as the amount of human use the park or an area of the park can maintain without ecological degradation.

BVN argues increasing visitation is causing direct and indirect ecological impacts, some of which are immediately obvious such as the correlation between increasing visitation and the increase in the number of human-wildlife conflicts.

The number of human-wildlife occurrences jumped from 1,757 in 2017 to 1,931 in 2018 – the latest figures available from Parks Canada.

These occurrences include bear jams, wildlife mortalities, wildlife in human-use areas, we well as instances related to wildlife in which they may not have been present such as fence damage, garbage or grain spills, or staff creating warnings and closures.

Though it has since rebounded, the Bow Valley wolf pack was decimated in 2016 due to human negligence. Two female wolves, including the breeding female, were shot for public safety reasons after they got a taste for human food and began hanging around busy areas, including campgrounds.

Just last year, a black bear was forced to swim across Lake Louise to avoid throngs of tourists who were descending on the bruin to capture that once-in-a-lifetime photo. After the ordeal, the stressed bear ended up biting a 24-year-old man on the leg.

Not only that, but the number of people needing to be rescued in the backcountry appear to be on the rise as well, while illegal camping has been a big problem in the last few years, whether campgrounds are full or not. Some cases involved bears searching for food at these illegal sites.

Last year, Parks Canada cracked down on the number of people who were violating a closure at Johnston Canyon to protect endangered black swifts nesting in the cliffs. Despite more than 30 signs there, charges after charges keep coming through the court system, primarily against international tourists and Calgarians.

While these are just some examples of the impacts of ever increasing number of tourists, BVN’s Bunyan said many of the effects of high visitation are “incremental and will only show up over time.”

“Visitation to our community cannot be managed or viewed in isolation from the surrounding park,” he said.

The topic of visitation and overcrowding is a big one in the current review of the Banff National Park Management Plan. As part of the earlier phase of the process last year, Parks Canada released a document summarizing initial public feedback.

According to the document, perspectives varied significantly on the subject; however, the prevailing view was that Banff National Park was overcrowded, including in and around the communities of Banff and Lake Louise, popular day-use areas and front-country trails in summer.

Some respondents believe that high levels of visitation increase the pressure for more development in the park, while others indicated current visitation levels are already damaging to the environment or have the potential to, and that further increases are not ecologically sustainable.

Numerous tactics for managing high visitation levels were suggested such as caps, seasonal and area restrictions, differential fee structures, reservation systems and lotteries. However, others stated that there were already too many restrictions and access should not be further impeded.

Cochrane said Parks Canada was also told to continue to manage and work on improving visitor experience and traffic congestion in the Lake Louise area as a priority.

“That’s going to continue to be part of the management plan as we go forward. We want to reduce congestion, improve access, reduce our carbon footprint – all those things we heard in the scoping document,” he said.

“I do remember limits and quotas were mentioned as part of the ‘What We Heard’ process, but I can’t really speak to that right now … if they’re going to be part of the plan going forward.”

Parks Canada intends to provide an update on the management plan at the Banff National Park annual planning forum this spring.  The second phase of public consultation will begin in the months following.

“Any and all interested Canadians will have the opportunity to review and comment on the draft plan,” said Parks Canada media spokesperson Justin Brisbane in an email.

Last year, a community social assessment conducted by the Town of Banff showed that living where the world visits was taking a toll on residents, with growing frustration and resentment among many of Banff’s 9,000 residents.

In an interview last year, Town of Banff officials said the assessment showed there is an obvious concern for wildlife with increasing visitation, as well as traffic and congestion, which some residents feel is affecting their quality of life and sense of belonging.

“The community is really wanting to have what they classify as difficult conversations, and part of that is about the sheer volume, the notion of capacity and when is enough, enough,” said Alison Gerrits, the Town of Banff’s community services director said at the time.

Meanwhile, Bruce said BLLT hears residents’ concerns and plans to get community input as part of a destination assessment.

As part of that, she said the organization would send out an RFP (request for proposals) to contract an expert to help facilitate discussion.

“The idea is that we are soliciting input with the broader community before a draft of the plan,” Bruce said.

“When we get feedback from the community assessment that talks about the challenges of living where the world visits, we think about how can we play a role in making this a great place to live.”

In a presentation to Banff town council last month, BLLT spoke to its final year of its five-year business plan, which focuses on building visitation in the shoulder season to become a year-round visitation.

BLLT highlighted it is vitally important to continue its focus on defending summer revenue for businesses, in part by encouraging responsible visitation with promotion of transit to deal with congestion.

“We are really working to smooth that demand curve, that visitation curve within the community,” said Bruce.

“We still have over 50 per cent of businesses that rely on June through September for their revenue, and we work very hard to ensure there’s more stability, and more employment opportunities, that will see us become truly a year-round destination.”

Given what she hears from residents, Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen, who sits on BLLT’s board of directors, wanted to stress that marketing and promotion efforts are no longer a focus in summer months.

“There was a day where we had bike fest and dragon boat races and we were doing events in the summer all the time,” she said.

“That has come to a stop because we kind of have enough people here in the summer… marketing and sales efforts are trying to focus on shoulder and winter seasons.”

The three main off-season events BLLT currently focuses on include SnowDays, the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival and the Christmas period.

“These are areas where we’ve identified we’re sitting at lower occupancy, around the 50 to 60 per cent mark,” said Bruce, noting that is much lower than the summer months when hotels are more than 90 per cent full.

“We are really committed as an organization and as a team to sustainability of tourism in our community; without tourism we don’t have an economy in this place. We work on how we will continue to work together to strike the right balance to being our visitor economy and the place that people call home.”

Within the Alberta government’s plan to double tourism spending in the province by 2030 from $10 billion to $20 billion, BLLT is adamant that this region cannot support that alone and the province needs to look to other tourism communities such as Drumheller.

“It’s a very challenging number and not something that they’re going to be able to look to Banff and Lake Louise to give them that double number,” Bruce said.

“We’re in support of the idea that the industry should get stronger, but in order for us to look at growth, we really are talking about growth in winter, and that’s where we’ll be able to contribute.”

BVN, however, continues to argue that visitor management needs to move beyond managing the symptoms of overcrowding.

To do that, Bunyan said that businesses, visitors, residents, the Town of Banff and Parks Canada  need to start having a frank and open conversation about visitation thresholds and living within our ecological means.

“Without an acceptance of limits, the conversation focus inevitably drifts to managing the symptoms of overcrowding, with euphemisms such as ‘demand management’, the creation of more traffic stalls, flagging, intercept parking, reservation systems but no quotas, mass transit but no limits, managing visitor expectations and the circular calls for more commercial development to solve the problem that commercial development created in the first place,” he said.