Banff grappling with high visitation [Rocky Mountain Outlook, 20/02/20]

“We have been trying to sound the alarm on ever increasing visitation and the accompanying lack of planning foresight for well over a decade. We suspect we are close to a tipping point.”

BANFF – Holiday destinations around the world are struggling with an onslaught of visitors  – and Canada’s flagship national park is no exception.

From iconic national parks like Yellowstone in the United States and premiere marine areas such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to famed European cities like Barcelona, Florence and Amsterdam, crowds of tourists are said to be ruining these destinations.

In Banff National Park, which now sees a record-breaking 4.1 million visitors a year, tourists and residents alike complain of being stuck in traffic, battling long line-ups, overcrowding and burgeoning environmental challenges, including threats to the park’s treasured wildlife such as bears and wolves.

Conservation groups say there’s an urgent need for Parks Canada to develop a comprehensive park-wide human use strategy that recognizes limits to growth following years of promoting an increase in tourist numbers without regard for the social and ecological consequences.

“We have been trying to sound the alarm on ever increasing visitation and the accompanying lack of planning foresight for well over a decade,” said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of Bow Valley Naturalists. “We suspect we are close to a tipping point.”

Wealthy retired boomers, regional population growth and a worldwide jump to more middle class incomes are believed to some of the drivers that have led to dramatic increases at popular tourism destinations. In just five years, Banff has jumped from 3.6 million visitors to more than 4.1 million.

In the absence of a park-wide human use strategy, BVN believes current efforts such as a recently announced shuttle bus reservation system for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, though commendable, seem like another Band-Aid solution.

Bunyan said there’s now some acknowledgement of BVN’s concerns from the business community, the Town of Banff and Parks Canada, but still a reluctance to actually accept that there are very real social, experiential and ecological limits to visitation in Banff National Park.

“There is an ecological limit or threshold as to how many visitors and residents we can jam into the park and that threshold may well vary with the time of year, place and activity,” Bunyan said, noting BNV does not pretend to know what that threshold may be.

While the environmental community talks about visitation limits and caps, the tourism industry prefers to speak to managing the experience for visitors.

Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise Tourism, said people tend to immediately shortcut to managing the numbers of people when thinking about visitor management or demand management, rather than looking at other solutions.

“If we just work on numbers, we will miss opportunities to do things more responsibly, to do things in a more creative way,” Bruce said. “We’re looking to manage the experience for visitors.”

While there is frustration about overcrowding at certain hotspots, BLLT points to its net promoter score – an index ranging from minus 100 to plus 100 used as a proxy for gauging overall visitor satisfaction.

The most recent net promoter score was 78 based on about 6,000 surveys, which Bruce said indicates Banff National Park continues to be one of the most desirable places to visit in Canada.

“We’re killing it. It’s an incredibly high score,” Bruce said, noting a score of 50 in the corporate world correlates with sustainable profit.

“We continue to buck the trend and to lead destinations around the world. I’ve only ever seen in the world, once, Iceland in one day at 80.”

In the net promoter score, points were lost over the previous summer around challenges like congestion and wait times at specific places such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake during the months of May through to September.

At peak times, traffic has been stopped from entering Lake Louise at the Trans-Canada Highway, while flaggers are posted at intersections to control and direct traffic. There have been concerns also raised about emergency vehicles having access to Upper Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

“There’s no doubt that that continues to be a pain point for us,” Bruce said.

As part of its response, BLLT has been working with Parks Canada to improve congestion and visitor experience, while also managing visitor expectations at these two iconic destinations by encouraging and promoting public transit.

Bruce pointed to success in getting more and more people out of their private vehicles and onto public transit, with total ridership on all Roam routes up by 20.5 per cent to approximately 1.5 million in 2019 compared to 1.2 million bus riders in 2018.

Read this in full here.

Cover image: Crowds of tourists take pictures from the rock pile lookout of Moraine Lake and the surrounding valley in September. The parking lot at Moraine Lake was closed at 6 a.m. as hundreds of tourists flocked to the lake. Photo: EVAN BUHLER RMO

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