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‘Whole country is not on fire’: Canada’s tourism struggles as fires rekindle

‘Climate change is an essential threat to Canadian tourism, to their reputation’
Smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire fills the air and nearly blocks out the sun as people take in the view of Okanagan Lake from Tugboat Beach, in Kelowna, B.C., on August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada’s tourism industry is trying to put on its Sunday best this week, showcasing itself to more than 500 international travel agents and tour operators at the largest annual tourism convention in Canada.

But as Rendez-vous Canada is taking place at the Edmonton Convention Centre, one of the biggest challenges Canada’s tourism industry is facing is playing out in technicolour just a few hundred kilometres away: wildfires.

“Climate change is an essential threat to Canadian tourism, to their reputation and that’s what we’re seeing,” said federal Tourism Minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada.

Hot, dry weather in Western Canada, exacerbated by climate change, sparked a massive fire southwest of Fort McMurray, forcing more than 6,000 people from their homes.

Some of them are the same residents whose houses were razed by a major wildfire in the same city just eight years ago.

In 2023, Canada recorded its worst wildfire season ever, with more than 6,400 fires burning more than 150,000 square kilometres in almost every province and territory.

This season started out a little slower, but turned quickly over the weekend with major out-of-control fires forcing evacuations and threatening cities and towns in both British Columbia and Alberta.

Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said the direct impact of wildfires is hard enough.

But making matters worse is the fact that many people around the world see headlines about Canada being on fire, she said, then think nowhere in the country is safe to visit.

“There are fires right now in northern parts of Alberta and British Columbia, but that doesn’t mean that all of Canada stops welcoming visitors from around the world,” she said.

“The biggest challenge we had actually (last year) was how big the fires are by comparison to how big our country is.”

Many international visitors don’t understand that wildfires have a limited impact on most of the country, said Potter.

Last summer, tourism operators in southwestern Ontario told her about cancellations due to fires largely more than 3,500 kilometres away in B.C., she said.

On top of all that, some operators have been finding insurance more expensive — if they can even secure it — as the risks from severe weather force the insurance industry to rethink costs.

Martínez Ferrada said there is no “miracle” cure, but government and industry must prepare for the worst, because climate change isn’t going away.

READ ALSO: Gusty winds fan concerns about fire turning on B.C.’s Fort Nelson

READ ALSO: Parts of Alberta see poor air quality as wildfires rage: Environment Canada