B.C. gears up for first weekend of recreational travel, but no international tourists yet

Canada may not be opening up to international travel quite yet, but British Columbians appear keen to hit the road after the province lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Traffic was steady at the province’s ferry terminals Friday, where BC Ferries added extra sailings on its major routes between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

Heavy traffic also saw the company’s website go down Friday morning, for the second time this week.

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While there were no waits for most sailings, BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said the ferry service was anticipating a wave of pent-up demand in the weeks to come.

Read more: B.C. moves to Step 2 of COVID-19 restart plan on June 15 — what will you be able to do?

“I think the traffic will start to ramp up as we move towards the summer,” she said.

“Starting late next week we will move into our summer schedules, so customers will start to see the kind of service we would have had pre-pandemic levels.”

Until Tuesday, British Columbians had been restricted to essential travel between the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the interior and north.

With those restrictions dropped, Ellen Walker-Matthews, acting president and CEO of the Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association, said there had already been an uptick in activity at visitor information centres.

“They’re coming in not even for information, just to say they’re back and they’re excited to be here,” she said.

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“We’re asking people to be a little patient because we’re coming from zero to 100 all of a sudden.”

Canada extends U.S. land border closure through July 21

Many hospitality and tourism-focused businesses were now facing hiring challenges, she added, after people left the industry throughout the course of the pandemic.

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While Walker-Matthews said there was significant interest from B.C. travellers, she added it remained to be seen whether it would be enough to fill the gap left by a lack of international tourists.

“We’re certainly hoping that starts to happen,” she said. “That people decided to go and really travel this province, find those places they’ve thought about or they’ve heard about and they’ve always just gone to their regular haunts.”

Read more: Canada-U.S. border closure extended again, until July 21

Tourism operators that traditionally cater to the international market, however, remain anxious about the potential impacts of another weak summer of business.

Struggling merchants in Vancouver’s Gastown are already staring down a second consecutive season without cruise ships, and fear with the border still closed, locals won’t pick up the slack.

“July, August, September are the most important three months for us in the whole year,” Jimmy Shao, co-owner of Silver Gallery, said. “If lost, basically the rest is a struggle.”

Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry of B.C., said the federal government needs to act quickly on developing a plan to opening the border to fully-vaccinated travellers.

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“International visitors spend three to five times more than domestic visitors so its a big blow, its a double-whammy if you will,” he said.

“Now that we are seeing B.C. travel open up again, B.C.ers are travelling to the usual hotspots and we aren’t seeing international visitors, so it really hurts Metro Vancouver.”

— With files from Aaron McArthur and John Hua

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