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Wildfire economic damage to B.C. tourism still being counted: minister

Tourism Minister Lana Popham says interest in B.C. far exceeds reputational damage after wildfires
Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport says interest in B.C. as a tourism destination far exceeds any reputational losses caused by this year’s wildfire season. (Colleen Flanagan/The News)

Tourism Minister Lana Popham predicts B.C.’s tourism industry will overcome any losses in reputation this year’s wildfire season may have caused.

Popham acknowledged news about B.C. wildfires can quickly travel around the world, but also warned against an over-reaction.

“It is of course always a concern, but I have to say that the global interest in our destination far exceeds any of the reputational damage that would have come from the forest fires this year,” Popham said.

She made these comments as her ministry continues to assess industry damage following wildfires that either directly or indirectly impacted key tourism regions including the Okanagan, Shuswap and west coast of Vancouver Island.

Popham said numbers are still coming, adding that the situation is fluid. Their assessment will determine the eventual level of government help given tourism operators.

Tourism operators received a piece of good news last week when the federal government extended the deadline for repaying loans received under the Canadian Emergency Benefit Account program by two years to the end of 2025. Tourism operators had called for the extension and Popham welcomed it. The BC Chamber of Commerce also welcomed it, but said more could have been done.

Popham said she will have a better idea of the available support for tourism operators following an upcoming meeting with her federal counterpart Soraya Martinez Ferrada.

Popham has already met with tourism operators in the Okanagan at two town hall-like meetings in Penticton and Kelowna shortly after the end of a southeastern B.C. travel ban instituted as part of the emergency response to the escalating wildfire situation last month.

“When we went up fairly soon after things had opened up again, so I would say that people were still generally in shock over what had happened,” she said. “It was a difficult conversation to listen to, because emotions were very visible.”

But Popham said the feedback she received was valuable and led to the recovery marketing campaign currently underway.

Led by the province’s tourism marketing arm Destination BC, the campaign encourages British Columbians, Albertans and residents of Washington State to explore B.C., especially regions which wildfires had affected.

People know that tourism operators experienced a difficult summer and want to know what they can do, Popham said.

“The best they can do is go visit,” she said.

While tourism is entering its shoulder season, Popham called it the “most magical time” to travel around the province.

“If you want to help B.C., explore B.C. right now,” she said.

Popham also encouraged British Columbians to support restaurants, which are very much part of the tourism industry.

As tourism operators are still taking stock of 2023, they also continue to turn their attention toward making the industry more resilient in the face of climate change, with wildfires, drought and other climate-related conditions expected to become more frequent and severe.

RELATED: Climate change cost B.C. tourism ‘$100s of millions, never to be recovered’

Popham acknowledged the importance of sustainability in face of those factors, noting that hospitality industry has already shown itself “very, very aggressive” in saving water and energy. Other types of businesses, she added, will require additional help, pointing to available funding under the heading of destination development.

Popham also outlined additional efforts to diversify the tourism sector. They include expanding the provincial network of trails to attract low-emission travellers, she said. While the strike of Hollywood actors and writers has shut down the provincial film industry, Popham also points to plans to combine both the tourism and film industry through the concept of film tourism.

British Columbia is also set to host a number of marque events, including 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup games.

Overall, Popham struck a bullish note about tourism in B.C.

“It’s going to be better than ever,” she said, when asked what tourism in B.C. will look like five years from now. “We have so much to offer here.”


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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