Over many years, tourism groups and others in the Okanagan Valley have worked to build and market the image of the region as a tourism destination.
“We are definitely seeing the peak tourism season is no longer just July and August. It really does start in April with all kinds of events and it ends in October,” said Ingrid Jarret, general manager of the Watermark Resort in Osoyoos.
She also notes that between 80 and 90 per cent of travel and tourism-reliant businesses are independent small businesses, primarily family-owned.
That makes it all the tougher when the tourism profile of the valley is affected by the events like last year’s flooding and fires, and flooding again this year, the resultant media coverage and traveller’s reaction.
“Whether it floods or road closures or fire or anything that feels dangerous our public definitely reacts in a way that will result in either cancellations or really questioning their choice of destination, and there are lots of destinations to choose from,” said Jarret. “So I would suggest the month of May, for many tourism businesses, were negatively impacted by cancellations because people were concerned about the roads being open. They were concerned about the impact of flooding and certainly on many of our media partners there was live footage of the most dramatic scenes possible.
“We all worked hard to communicate when we were open and how they could get here.”
Jarett said she couldn’t really blame the media for the reduction in business.
“It’s important that people are safe and that they feel that this is the right place for them. In the same breath, we really need to make sure that we are communicating the reality of the messaging, which is businesses are open,”said Jarett. “The golf courses, the wineries, the bike shops, the restaurants and cafes, so many of them are dependent on this travel economy.
“There was lots of misinformation there and all we can do is one phone call at a time, educate people.”
Taking a broader, regional outlook, Ellen Walker-Matthews, vice-president for destination and industry development at the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, pointed out that many areas and types of tourism did well over the Victoria Day long weekend.
“Naramata Bench wineries were absolutely bursting and the Kettle Valley Rail Trail had lots of people riding it. Over in the Shuswap, they had great numbers and also up into Wells Gray Park,” said Walker-Matthews, adding that the tourism industry needs to keep talking about what the region’s assets are.
“Oftentimes the situation at hand is in a limited area. Even if we look back on the fire season, it sounded like it was much broader than it was in many cases,” said Walker-Matthews. “We have to make sure that we accurately assess where it is and how we explain where it is.”
Part of the solution for better messaging, Jarret said, is working together to help visitors understand what is going on.
“We need to really be able to do is have maps and tools for people to be able to actually have a look and see Highway 3 is open,” she said. “The more visual the better. If businesses themselves were able to access those kinds of tools it definitely would make a difference.
“It is really important that we are seen as this clean beautiful, safe destination that we are.”
The Watermark took the step of putting up a webcam this year, so people could take a look for themselves.
“Is the air clear or is it sunny? They would see the lake and they would see that we, in fact, are not flooding,” said Jarret. “I think that visual, for many guests, is what they need for reassurance.”
Jarret did say the outlook is, well, sunny.
“We’re 30 C and we’re in May, this weather is going to go right through till the beginning of October,” said Jarret. “I just really hope that the rest of the summer is really great for all of us that we have a really good remainder of our tourism season.”
Senior reporter, Penticton Western News