This summer season was short, and perhaps sweet enough so some of B.C.’s tourism operators were able to weather the pandemic's negative impacts.

Campgrounds, parks, restaurants and a range of tourism services reaped some measure of reward from B.C. residents exploring their backyards and following the government’s staycation directive.

But kayaking expedition operators certainly weren’t buoyed by a wave of local vacationers, said Rick Snowdon, owner of Spirit of the West Adventures based on Quadra Island.

“When you look at the numbers, they are pretty dire,” Snowdon said, adding no one involved in tourism was surprised by COVID-19's ripple effects.

“But I think those of us who are guided tour operators felt the impacts more than others.”

The marine adventure tourism sector — so critical to the economy of many small coastal communities in B.C. — took a big hit as international visitors vanished this year.

Snowdon, who typically offers eight different multi-day tours, offered only one this summer and his revenues dropped by 85 per cent.

A rough count suggests there are at least 57 kayaking expedition companies operating along the B.C. coast that might be facing similar circumstances, Snowdon said.

Typically, Snowdon's Quadra Island kayaking company employs 45 people and hosts 1,300 guests who usually spend some of their time and money locally before or after their tours.

This year, however, he was only able to hire a third of his staff, and that number was only possible because of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program.

And the company toured a meagre 100 guests, with only a handful of them setting foot on Quadra, Snowdon said.

“When you look at the numbers, they are pretty dire, but I think those of us who are guided tour operators felt the impacts more than others” Kayaking expedition operator Rick Snowdon on an 85 per cent loss in revenue due to Covid-19.
Rick Snowdon, owner of Spirit of the West Adventures on Quadra Island, says the pandemic had a dire effect on his business but that he hopes next year will be better. Photo: Chris Bulowski

The tour that was offered was substantially modified to meet pandemic protocols.

That meant only accepting smaller groups that were already in social bubbles together, providing masks to guests, installing barriers as necessary and adding hand-washing stations or setups.

It was gratifying to make the tours a reality, but the loss of visitors, the late season start, added costs and low community support for tourism radically drove down income, Snowdon said.

Revenue drops of 85 per cent are being reported not only by marine tourism operators, but also by the adventure tourism sector as a whole, said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. (TIABC).

Operators running more sophisticated expeditions were the hardest hit, because locals simply didn’t replace missing international tourists, Judas said.

“Locals have their own kayaks. They’re familiar with their area and just won’t pay for that sort of thing because it’s in their backyard,” Judas said.

“But when people come from other areas of the world, these tours are bucket-list items they’ll gladly pay for, and that’s where the revenue is generated.”

Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. (TIABC), believes low or no interest loans are going to be necessary to see adventure tourism operators survive the off season. Photo supplied by TIABC.

Though adventure tourism operators have been able to take advantage of some of the federal and provincial COVID-19 relief programs, many will need extra help to survive the winter, Judas added.

“What’s really needed is working capital grants, or low- or no-interest loans to help these businesses over the hump,” he said

“Because otherwise, a lot of these operators run the risk of going out of business during the low season.

“And, if you don't have a tourism supply chain in place, you really don't have reasons for people to visit and spend their money in the province.”

Hits to eco-tourism particularly affect rural and remote communities, like the Discovery Islands, Snowdon said.

Revenue from kayaking expeditions, fishing charters, or whale-watching provides economic benefits to small coastal communities, whether it be at hotels and restaurants, or indirectly at the grocery and hardware stores, he added.

“There’s sort of a classic line that most people who work in tourism don't know they work in tourism,” Snowdon said.

Kayaking expeditions and other eco-tourism operators drive the province's “Super, Natural British Columbia" branding and local economies in rural, remote communities. Photo Dave Hartman.

Eco-tourism operators are the driving force behind the province’s “Super, Natural British Columbia branding" — which promotes outdoor exploration of sensational wilderness, seas, forests and mountain landscapes, he said.

The sector represents approximately $2 billion in direct spending by tourists, not including the supply services the industry supports, according to the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.

Additionally, adventure tourism supports 26,000 direct full-time jobs and some 40,000 jobs overall.

Beyond bridge loans, the next step to ensuring the sector is sustainable is to smooth the way for the safe return of international tourists, Judas said.

“The real focus for us now is to see if and how we can begin to welcome those visitors again,” he said.

But Snowdon doesn’t anticipate international visitors will be returning by next summer. He has modest expectations for 2021.

By applying the adaptations and lessons learned by safely operating under the new pandemic protocols this summer, he hopes to earn perhaps 50 per cent of his past annual revenue in the coming year.

He also expects the kayaking tourism sector will contract and some operators will be lost, but overall it will survive.

“I don’t think there’s a switch that will be flipped and things will go back to normal,” Snowdon said. “You'd be overly optimistic to think that things are just going to come roaring back.

“If it does, that would be great. But if it doesn't, we'll be ready to work without it.”

Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer