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Banff residents struggling to maintain quality of life with growing tourism economy

BANFF – Living where the world visits is taking a toll on residents.

BANFF – Living where the world visits is taking a toll on residents.

As part of Banff’s community social assessment, it became clear that there is growing frustration and resentment among many of Banff’s 9,000 residents around living in a tourist town with more than four million visitors a year.

Town of Banff officials say residents speak about how busy life is and how there is no longer a downtime, or shoulder season, adding there’s a general sense people are working more and struggling with lower paying jobs in a town with a high cost of living.

Alison Gerrits, the Town’s community services director, said 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,” Gerrits said.

“Some of the frustration and boiling point is being reached by hearing about the interactions happening with wildlife where there is a negative outcome, traffic congestion and the sense of safety on bicycles when you’re manoeuvring through that height of summer visitation.”

Banff National Park is one of the most popular tourism hotspots in Canada, however it continues to struggle to find ways to manage the influx of people during the busy summer season.

The community social assessment involved conversations with more than 800 residents. Living in a thriving tourist town was cited as one of the biggest issues, second only to the struggles residents face with a cost of living.

“The two feed into each other,” Gerrits said.

Residents want more discussion between Town of Banff, Banff Lake Louise Tourism, Parks Canada, businesses and the community on balancing the community’s capacity to host tourists with the annual increase in national park visitation.

Frustration at national park values not being upheld or enforced consistently, and the need for improved efforts in educating visitors, including about the park’s treasured wildlife, were highlighted.

There was a sense of anxiety over increased traffic congestion and pedestrian and biker safety, as well as frustration from local neighbourhoods that have great difficulty getting in and out of town on the busiest days due to traffic.

Some of the quotes from participants presented as part of the community social assessment included: “City people come here and go nuts and treat Banff like it is Vegas.”

“The Town needs to advocate for citizens with the same energy it provides to tourism and businesses that support tourism.” “People who actually live here feel they are being left out of conversations.” “We stay at home mostly during the peak seasons to avoid traffic and people.” “Sometimes I feel like this town just exists for tourists.”

The concept of over-tourism is happening around the world, where residents feel their home towns are disappearing beneath heavy crowds and traffic congestion; and where ecosystems, amenities and infrastructure are put under enormous strain.

Bow Valley Naturalists welcomed the Town of Banff’s community social assessment, saying it should serve as a wake-up call to town council, Parks Canada and tourism organizations.

Reg Bunyan, a member of the BVN’s board of directors, said a positive park experience is ultimately dependent upon a healthy, happy community; one that feels fully engaged and connected with visitors.

“The community social report was an excellent piece of work and many of the concerns expressed by residents such as weariness, frustration and resentment are just symptoms of a community under visitation stress,” Bunyan said. “It's very challenging for a small town to absorb that many visitors without showing some cracks in the foundation.”

But BVN says people should try imagining visitation stress from an ecological perspective.

The local conservation group has long argued increased commercial use, large special events and overcrowding due to visitation targets are all threatening ecological integrity and the park experience for visitors.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of human-wildlife interactions, which leads to stress on park wildlife. In one case, a grizzly bear was fed sandwich meat from a tourist van at Vermilion Lakes, while more recently, wolves were killed for public safety reasons after getting a taste for human food and garbage.

Bunyan said the four million visitors to Banff each year spend the bulk of their time in the relatively small Bow Valley, some of the best wildlife habitat in Banff National Park.

“If we, as a social species, are feeling the pressure of too many visitors, what is it like for those other species that really don't want to be near us at all?” said Bunyan, who is a retired resource conservation officer with Banff National Park.

“As visitation levels increase, there is a tipping point where it also becomes progressively more challenging to reach new visitors with the appropriate park messages, such as wildlife etiquette and safety.”
Visitation social and ecological capacity issues are complex.

“I don’t think any one of us has the answer as to how much visitation is too much, but I do think it is important that we at least start having a long overdue conversation about the consequences of ever increasing visitation growth,” said Bunyan.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism also welcomes the findings of Banff’s community social assessment, noting the reports helps advance the important conversation the community wants to have.

Despite the challenges of living in a tourism town, BLLT officials say there are many positives to living here, such as abundant jobs, population diversity and access to amenities, programs and services usually reserved for bigger cities.

“We are working off the principle that if Banff is a great place to live, Banff will be a great place to visit,” said Leslie Bruce, BLLT’s president and CEO.

“It is absolutely a critical conversation in order to find the healthy balance between tourism, which drives our economy, and the fact this is people’s home town and community.”

The concept of over tourism – and demand management – has been on the discussion table within the industry.

Bruce said tourism sustainability from an economic, social and environmental perspective is an important conversation for the board.

“We are spending more time exploring, considering and looking for best practices,” she said.

But Bruce said the concept of caps or limits may have unintended consequences.

“We do have to talk about alternate or different solutions. I think we’ve spent more time on focusing on what is the outcome that we’re seeking and then looking to how might we solve that,” she said.

“But if you’re managing infrastructure and you’re managing perception and you’re managing ecological indicators and economic and social indicators, and you’re looking for that healthy environment, then you realize there’s no one solution. I don’t believe it’s a line in the sand.”

In terms of wildlife, BLLT is investing in website and social media campaigns about responsible behaviour around wildlife, such as wildlife photography, decreasing animals attractants and dangers of illegally feeding wildlife.

On traffic and congestion woes, BLLT has been working in partnership with Parks Canada and the Town of Banff to get people out of their private vehicles and onto public transit.

In fact, paid parking and a residential parking permit system are back on the council discussion table. The Town is also looking into the feasibility of a congestion charge.

“We’ve dedicated a significant amount of resources to ensure people are getting on mass transit and try to influence that behaviour for people to do that downstream, at the airport and City of Calgary,” Bruce said.

Armed with a $12 million budget this year, BLLT is putting a focus on boosting visitation in the shoulder and winter seasons as part of its 2019 business plan. The plan targets annual average hotel occupancy of 71.9 per cent and an increase in room nights of 14,000 in the quieter months of November, early December, January and April.

Bruce said BLLT also plans to incorporate community feedback into a new events strategy being worked on.

“The thrust of this strategic framework we’re working on is to generate demand for visitation in winter and shoulder seasons,” she said.

“If we can create more stable demand through the months of October through May, we can provide opportunities for more full-time employment and commitment for people to stay longer term, then that has a positive effect on the community.”

BVN raises a red flag on this move, noting increasing visitation in winter months may have unforeseen ecological impacts.

Bunyan said increased winter visitation fuels demand for more winter recreational opportunities and has been one of the drivers for ski area expansion.

“Habitat loss and wildlife displacement due to human activities are much more important in winter, when wildlife is already under significant stress,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gerrits said a need was identified in the social assessment to stimulate wider understanding about the role of the townsite as a centre to support tourism, as required in the municipality’s incorporation agreements.

She said it became apparent there is a significant misunderstanding on the part of many residents surrounding the agreement, and the fact that the town’s very existence is to provide services to visitors.

“Banff isn’t the town where accidental tourism occurred,” Gerrits said, noting there are global destinations where communities and cities have become meccas for tourism.

“Barcelona is a good example, but that’s different than us. We were created as a tourism destination.”

It’s expected these conversations will be part of the upcoming Banff community plan and Banff National Park Management Plan reviews.

“I see them as being two very upcoming opportunities for people to be able to express some of their frustrations,” Gerrits said.

Parks Canada did not get back to the Outlook about its future management plan discussions in the community.

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