A quieter Banff regaining local tourism

Reopening Canada: With borders closed and no decision on when they will reopen, the only travellers taking in the sights are locals.

A herd of elk took advantage of a lack of tourists to dine on the lawn across from the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital on April 26. Marie Conboy / Postmedia Network

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Long a draw for tourists, Alberta’s national parks have been decidedly quieter this summer. With borders closed and no decision on when they will reopen, the only travellers taking in the sights are locals, which includes the resident elk who seemed to take over the streets at the height of the pandemic, according to the town.

“We’re seeing Calgarians, Edmontonians, people from Red Deer. People are saying they’ve wanted to come in summer but there are always too many people. So locals are finally getting to see the place in its summer glory,” said Scott Hergott, executive chef with Banff Properties Pursuit.

National parks closed in March and began to open as of June 1, including Banff and Waterton Lakes. While tourist traffic was slow at first, Hergott said there is a noticeable uptick every week. Peak lunch capacity at the Banff Gondola Sky Bistro is 250 people and on June 13, it served 160. The dinner service was equally busy. He also noted that Pursuit’s four hotels in Jasper were totally booked for the Father’s Day weekend.

“So people are coming. I think this summer is going to be busy. I said that even before I saw the numbers last weekend. We are a society that loves to eat, loves to be social and have new experiences and offerings.”

It was a quiet day as the rain poured down on Banff Avenue on May 31, 2020. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Azin Ghaffari / Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

No figures are available yet for people entering Banff National Park since June 1 but town traffic cameras recorded a low of 2,108 vehicles entering and exiting the town on April 12. That climbed to 11,301 on June 14.

“The last time I looked last weekend, traffic was down 50 per cent year over year. So things are starting to open up. For example last Sunday in downtown Banff, it was definitely not the same as before, but it was a really good vibe. People were really positive, they were out on patios, enjoying all the new space,” said Angela Anderson, director of media and communications for Banff & Lake Louise Tourism. “There’s so much opportunity for Albertans to come enjoy Banff again.”


The outlook was far grimmer in April when the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta was projecting a potential disaster. “We estimate 50 per cent of all Alberta tourism businesses could run out of cash if there is no summer tourism season – and it is shaping up to be that there’s no summer tourism season,” reported chairperson Alida Visbach. In Banff alone, between 5,000 and 6,000 people were laid off out of 9,000 residents in the first few weeks of the closure.

To that end, the town and the park have adopted some strategies to make it more attractive to visitors. Three blocks of Banff Avenue will be closed until mid-September to allow for expanded patios and more room for pedestrians. Cycle touring and hiking is also being promoted with a section of the Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Castle Junction, including the very popular Johnston Canyon, closed to vehicles, and also one lane of the Minnewanka Loop is dedicated to cyclists.

The Banff Candy Store on Banff Avenue. Postmedia Files SunMedia

Carolyn Sukas, owner of the iconic Banff Candy store, said every little bit helps.

“The reason the town went ahead with closing the street is to allow people to feel like they have more space and hopefully they’ll feel like we’re doing something for them.”

Sukas has only been open for three weeks but acknowledged business has been slow at the 55-year-old shop which is packed to the rafters with candies, salted licorice, European chocolates and all manner of jawbreakers.

“The only traffic we’ve had are locals and those from Calgary and Edmonton. We’re very thankful for that. We’re hoping that closer to July and August we’ll see a lot more Canadians come here… We’re all in this together.”

The newly opened Fram & Fire restaurant inside Elk + Avenue Hotel in Banff. Courtesy, Farm & Fire by Pursuit DEVAAN INGRAHAM / jpg

Hergott is banking on that as he’s overseeing the opening of a new restaurant in the midst of the pandemic. When the April 17 launch of Farm & Fire was scuttled, Hergott regrouped and used the time to plan for the new rules. Among the changes are single-use menus that will be recycled, tables left unset until guests arrive, visible sanitizing, fewer tables set further apart, and bottled water on tables.

“There are so many unknowns in operating in a pandemic but 100 per cent, it’s about guest safety. That’s the only thing that matters. Guests should feel safe... Creating that environment is the key ingredient.”

Farm & Fire is one of at least two new restaurants in town, but a few businesses were lost during the pandemic-caused closure.

“Banff is an area that relies on tourism and a lot of international tourists in summer,” said Anderson. “We’re definitely focused trying to help promote all businesses opening and getting that information out.”