BANFF – Residents are being invited to have their say on the future of tourism in Banff National Park.
As part of development of a 10-year tourism master plan for the park, a community survey, which can be found at tourismtogether.ca, runs until June 10.
Officials with Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) say the master plan, which is being co-developed with the Town of Banff and Parks Canada, will consider community well-being, the environment and economic prosperity.
“There was so much that changed over COVID, that it really gave everyone time to pause and reflect,” said Nancy DaDalt, BLLT’s director of visitor experience.
“The tourism master plan will become the guidepost for sustainable tourism here and we want community feedback.”
In March, tourism industry stakeholders were surveyed to get a better understanding of their thoughts on future readiness coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, key areas of priority, and expectations for a shared future vision of local tourism.
The community survey is one of the next steps in the evolution of developing a master plan, which is expected to be completed by November.
In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, living in a busy tourist town was taking a heavy toll on many residents as more than four million visitors came to Banff National Park each year.
In Banff’s 2018 community social assessment, residents indicated exploding visitation and the associated traffic congestion that goes along with that was affecting their quality of life and sense of belonging.
In that assessment conducted by the Town of Banff, the challenges associated with living in the tourism town were ranked second highest by Banff residents, second only to the high cost-of-living.
Residents spoke about how busy life was and how there was no downtime or shoulder seasons anymore. They shared feelings of anxiety over increased traffic congestion and pedestrian and biker safety and impacts on treasured wildlife in the park.
There was ongoing frustration over getting in and out of town on the busiest of days due to traffic, which often occurs throughout the busy summer months and when commercial special events are hosted.
On this past May long weekend, visitation returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, with back-to-back traffic forcing delays of about 90 minutes on the south side of the Bow River from the gondola and hot springs on Sulphur Mountain.
Mayor Corrie DiManno said it is important for residents to share their thoughts in the survey on what sustainable tourism could look like and what they want for the future of the community.
“As we’ve heard in the past from residents, there are challenges, as well as perks, to living where the world visits and this tourism master plan really is going to focus on that community well-being piece,” she said.
“This plan will truly be co-owned by the Town of Banff, Parks Canada and Banff Lake Louise Tourism, and we will need that community buy-in to move the needle on any of the big ideas that are coming with this plan.”
Mayor DiManno said she believes had the COVID-19 pandemic not happened, 2020 “would have been a breaking point in a big way”.
“Folks were working multiple jobs, we had so many personal vehicles in town and in the park, there were instances of tourists feeding animals, and it truly felt like we were going to be at a breaking point,” she said.
“Because of the pandemic, this presented us an even better opportunity to build back what we want to see in the future, and from what I heard, we want to see what can be sustainable … we want to protect this environment while also maintaining a strong economy as well as a healthy community.”
DaDalt said other tourism areas have or are in the process of developing tourism master plans, such as Scotland and New Zealand.
She said a tourism master plan will help manage “what’s coming down the pipe.”
“Climate change and vehicle congestion and potential train, all of those indicators were part of of it,” she said.
DaDalt said there will probably be more community or resident frustration over the next couple of years, but she reminds herself that Banff was in “dire straights for two years” during the pandemic.
“There are many, many people who have suffered many, many losses and so to have recovery over the next couple of years is going to be super important,” she said.
“We have to all do this together and it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight… I would like to see all of us be patient with each other and share feedback and keep moving in that direction of change and going from good to better to best.”
Development of a tourism master plan aligns with other long-range plans including Banff National Park Management Plan, which is expected to be tabled in parliament, and existing municipal community planning documents such as the environmental and transportation master plans.
It also comes at the same time as a federally-struck expert panel looks to advise Parks Canada on a long-term framework for how visitors will get around the Bow Valley and experience Banff National Park, including consideration of new technologies and best practices from around the world.
In addition, the nine-member panel has been tasked with thinking beyond transportation modes to demand management strategies, such as reservation systems, access restrictions, quotas, or timed and paid parking.
The research for the tourism master plan is being conducted by Group NAO, an internationally recognized consultant organization that specializes in sustainable tourism.
As part of the tourism master plan process, six working groups have been convened with members of the community and tourism stakeholders.
The working groups include Live, Work and Community; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Future Destination Brand and Values; Innovating Tourism; Sustainability; and Indigenous Tourism.
Each group set out to build shared understanding, identify collective priorities, and co-develop joint recommendations on its subject area.
In June, the groups will share their recommendations with a steering committee, which includes representatives from the Town of Banff, Parks Canada, the tourism industry and the community.
Stavros Karlos, the owner of Balkan Restaurant who is participating in a working group, said the last two years have been very challenging for all facets of the visitor economy.
“The tourism master plan will help rebuild the dominant industry in Banff and Lake Louise and focus on defining a shared vision for the destination,” he said in a release. “I hope residents take advantage of the survey to have their voices heard.”
Heather Dempsey, a longtime member of Bow Valley Naturalists, said a thoughtful approach to the future of tourism in Banff and Lake Louise is needed.
“We know how amazing it is to live here. We need to be sure we protect it, so visitors can enjoy it for years to come,” she said in a release.
Cathy Geisler of Banff Lodging Company and The Wim & Nancy Pauw Foundation, said it is a critical time for tourism in this area.
“We have the perfect opportunity to re-think our approach,” said Geisler, who is also a working group participant. “Anyone who lives here has a stake in what’s to come.”
The hope is to have the tourism master plan completed by the end of the year and rolled out in 2023.
Residents who complete the survey by June 3 will be entered in a prize draw for $500 to spend in the Banff and Lake Louise area.
“Please fill out the resident survey and share and spread it to your friends,” said DaDalt.