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Wildfires cast smoky shadow over tourism industry ahead of unofficial start of summer

Wildfire MWF017, near Fort McMurray, burns out of control at 19,820 hectares on May 16, 2024. (Source: Twitter / Alberta Wildfire) Wildfire MWF017, near Fort McMurray, burns out of control at 19,820 hectares on May 16, 2024. (Source: Twitter / Alberta Wildfire)
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At Andrew Lake Lodge — a remote camp in the extreme northeast corner of Alberta — owner Dan Wettlaufer is looking forward to welcoming the first of this year's crop of tourists this weekend.

But the wildfire burning out of control near Fort McMurray could put a crimp in this year's May long weekend and the start of the summer tourism season, Wettlaufer acknowledged. 

"There are no roads to our operations, it's all fly-in, fly-out. So depending on what's happening at any of the locations we fly from, it can definitely affect our ability to put on our trips," Wettlaufer said.

"We have people booked to come up this weekend through Fort McMurray. Fortunately, we do have some flexibility in that we could reroute them through Edmonton or Fort Smith (N.W.T.) if necessary."

Andrew Lake Lodge attracts visitors from across the country, the U.S., Europe and Asia looking to experience fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing in a pristine wilderness location. 

The lodge is 400 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray, not anywhere close to the fire that triggered an evacuation order for parts of that community this week. 

But Wettlaufer, like many in Canada's tourism sector, is concerned about the ripple effects of increased wildfire activity on his industry. Last year, he had to cancel or reschedule a number of his clients' trips as smoke from fires in the Northwest Territories made taking off and landing at his lodge's landing strip too dangerous.

Wettlaufer said he worries not just about potential losses related to evacuation orders, travel difficulties and smoke-filled skies, but also indirect impacts such as reputational damage to the country as a whole.

"Internationally, when people hear of Canadian wildfires, they may think it is the whole country that's on fire," he said. 

"We're trying to change the optics on that, but it's hard to do that other than with the people who know exactly where (in the country) they're going." 

Last year was Canada's worst wildfire season on record, with more than 100,000 square kilometres burned from the West Coast to the Atlantic provinces and the Far North. 

One of the worst fires last summer occurred in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley in August, prompting evacuation orders for more than 35,000 people.

At the Big White Ski Resort in that region, which hosts mountain biking and a variety of events and festivals in the summer, senior vice-president Michael Ballingall said he is worried that forecasts for a significant wildfire season in 2024 will scare off some guests.

"We’re already hearing people question whether it’s a good summer to come (to the Okanagan)," Ballingall said.

"You can never out-market the news."

Marsha Walden, CEO of tourism marketing Crown corporation Destination Canada, said last year's headline-grabbing fire season — as well as the fires currently raging in Western Canada — have an impact on people's perception of this country.

But she said her organization's own research shows only one in 10 potential visitors to Canada will consider completely cancelling a trip due to wildfire activity.

"Most will adjust their itinerary or their timing," she said. "So we have seen short-term dips in visitation ... but people still want to take their holiday."

Stavros Karlos, with the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta, said increasing incidences of wildfire and smoke across the country are a huge concern to the sector as a whole. 

He said it's important that tourism businesses have access to up-to-the-minute, accurate information about wildfire activity and air quality so that they can cancel events, change their hours, or move activities indoors if necessary.

"In some cases, operators may have the opportunity to still provide an experience, albeit somewhat modified," Karlos said. 

While a final tally hasn't been completed, last summer's wildfires likely cost B.C.'s Okanagan region millions of dollars in lost tourism revenues, said Ellen Walker-Matthews, CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association.

What makes wildfire so challenging from a planning perspective is its sporadic nature, Walker-Matthews said. Smoke, for example, can shift rapidly on changing winds, affecting one community one day and one 1,000 kilometres away the next.

"We're just trying to really promote what we have and make sure that people know what the real-time, actual situation is," said Walker-Matthews, adding the long weekend weather forecast for the Okanagan this year is "beautiful ... spectacular" with no fire activity in sight.

"There's lots of things to see and do, and I think as long as we just communicate out the facts accurately, we'll see tourism continue to be strong."

- With files from Christopher Reynolds

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2024.

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