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Banff-Kananaskis MLA tackles tourism destination funding, programs

“The town of Canmore is 14,000 people. It is designed with roads for 14,000 people. On a weekend in Canmore there are hundreds of thousands of people. That puts a tremendous tax on infrastructure."
Banff-Kananaskis MLA Sarah Elmeligi in the Alberta Legislature on April 8.

BANFF – Banff-Kananaskis MLA Sarah Elmeligi has taken up the cause for some form of tourism designation and funding model to ease the financial burden on local municipal taxpayers who bear the brunt of paying for multi-million tourism infrastructure.

Elmeligi’s private members motion, which was defeated after an hour of debate in the Alberta Legislature on Monday (April 8), called for the provincial UCP government to establish funding and support programs for tourism-based economies like Banff, Canmore and Jasper which are experiencing exploding visitation.

NDP members argued growing visitation puts a significant strain on municipal infrastructure, which has created unprecedented stress on municipal budgets, leaving local taxpayers to bear the brunt of those costs through higher municipal taxes.

Elmeligi, who is the Opposition Critic for Tourism, Sports and Recreation, said it is important to recognize the importance of tourism on the Alberta economy and the need to balance visitor experiences and resident affordability.

“These communities face a disproportional cost and a humongous – humongous – amount and volume of tourism that is funded by a rural tax base,” said Elmeligi.

“The town of Canmore is 14,000 people. It is designed with roads for 14,000 people. On a weekend in Canmore, there are hundreds of thousands of people. That puts a tremendous tax on infrastructure.

“It is difficult for a rural tax base to provide infrastructure to host millions of people without seeing recognition or support from the province.”

The government’s new provincial tourism strategy talks about increasing tourism spending to $25 billion by 2035.

Banff, Canmore and Jasper together contribute about $200 million in provincial taxes each year and generate more than $2.2 billion for the provincial GDP annually.

The three communities host millions of visitors each year, with Banff welcoming 4.13 million in 2022-23 fiscal year and Jasper 2.42 million in 2022-23.

“These three communities have 0.68 per cent of the Alberta population yet host 13 per cent of all visitors to Alberta,” said Elmeligi.

Elmeligi’s motion builds on former local UCP MLA Miranda Rosin’s 2023 bill for a special designation in the Municipal Government Act for tourism communities. That bill reached the floor but didn’t have time to pass because the spring session ended ahead of the provincial election.

A Canmore resident, Elmeligi said there are many benefits to living in and visiting Banff, Canmore and Jasper, which have thriving local economies, creative and innovative local businesses, restaurants, and events.

However, she said tourism comes at a cost to a local community.

“Municipalities invest money into tourism infrastructure like parking lots, public toilets, multi-use trail networks, and that takes away from other municipal budgetary infrastructure needs like water treatment, affordable housing provision, local community affordability programs,” she said.

Some municipalities have also experienced reduced budgets with the new Local Government Fiscal Framework (LGFF) funding model, said Elmeligi, yet tourism continues to increase and municipal taxes go up.

Jasper and Banff’s municipal taxes for 2024 are up more than nine per cent over last year, while Canmore’s municipal tax jumped 7.4 per cent this year.

“This decreased funding to municipalities literally translates to increased property taxes as residents are asked to pay more to welcome the world while the provincial bank account continues to grow,” she said.

“All of these communities have increased municipal taxes to address the needs of tourism.”

Elmeligi said the neighbouring province of British Columbia has created legislation to support tourism, distributing $1 billion among 188 municipalities and regional districts to support tourism infrastructure.

She said the regional municipality of Whistler expects to receive $5.7 million in provincial funding under B.C. legislation.

“I can guarantee you that Canmore and Banff and Jasper are not receiving $6 million from the province to help address the dire need for tourism-based infrastructure,” she said.

Alberta Tourism and Sport Minister Joseph Schow and Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver both spoke to the importance of tourism to the provincial economy, as well as the government’s investment in tourism, including $80 million for Travel Alberta.

The ministers and UCP MLAs spoke to municipalities getting more predictable funding through the LGFF model to support priority infrastructure projects. And they pointed to the tourism industry reaching new heights with $10.7 billion in tourism spending in 2022  – up $600 million from 2019 levels.

However, neither McIver or Schow specifically said how they intend to financially support the local municipalities which are paying for the tourism infrastructure to host millions of visitors.

“We have been talking and we regularly talk to tourism municipalities,” said McIver, noting he met with Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert earlier in the day April 8.

“As the Municipal Affairs minister, I’m certainly committed to staying in regular touch with them to talk about how we can work together.”

Elmeligi said the government commented on how great the provincial tourism strategy is and all of the funding for Travel Alberta, but there is “hesitancy to put our money where our mouth is” when it comes to supporting these municipalities.

“I do not deny that those things exist; however, funding for destination marketing organizations like Tourism Canmore Kananaskis or Tourism Jasper is not funding for infrastructure,” she said.

“It is funding for marketing to bring more people to these communities that are already struggling to provide high-quality infrastructure for those visitors.”

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno and Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert were grateful Elmeligi went to bat for tourism municipalities and both are keen to work with the provincial government to get additional infrastructure support.

“Recently, the tourism strategy was released and within that, they talk a lot about communities in areas where they want to begin developing tourism, but what’s missing is how they’re going to help support leading destinations and iconic destinations in Alberta,” said DiManno.

“We help welcome four million visitors a year and we do it off the backs of our tax base,” she said, noting 43 per cent of the 2021 municipal budget went toward visitor-facing infrastructure and services.

“We’re wanting that recognized through some kind of either designation or grant program.”

During the 2024 Spring Municipal Leaders’ Caucus on March 14-15, McIver said he had been tasked by Premier Danielle Smith to research what resort municipality status could look like.

“Not to get you too excited because we have to evaluate whether it’s a good idea or not,” he said, noting costs are part of the consideration.

“I am tasked with looking at that … that’s underway.”

DiManno said given McIver’s comments at the Spring Municipal Leaders’ Caucus, she was disappointed Elmeligi’s motion was not supported by the government.

“It becomes very discouraging when you get a message like that in mid-March saying that this government’s been tasked with researching this idea and looking into it, and then a motion like this is defeated,” she said.

“My hope is it’s still being worked on and we will continue to advocate for more support.”

Krausert, who was in the Legislature on April 8 when Elmeligi brought forward her motion, said he was pleased the issue was discussed for close to an hour, but said its defeat was not necessarily surprising given it came from the Opposition party.

“I think it was a step forward in the overall journey towards addressing the additional costs that tourism-based communities face in hosting the world,” he said.

Krausert said the tourism-based communities of Canmore, Banff, Jasper, Sylvan Lake and Drumheller are continuing planning for their next ask of the province.

“We’re having further discussions with members of the government and our own MLA,” he said.

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