Coronavirus spotlight: chatting with Destination British Columbia

author photo
Helen Fanthorpe
6/18/2020

British Columbia – Canada’s westernmost province, home to the vibrant city of Vancouver and world-class skiing at Whistler – is known for its outstanding natural beauty. Its wide-open landscapes and (really) great outdoors have long been a draw for travellers from across the globe. We spoke to Stephanie Fielden, Market Development Manager for Europe & the South Pacific at Destination British Columbia, to find out more about how the region was coping with coronavirus, and what plans are in store going forwards.

In conversation with Stephanie Fielden

Q: What has British Columbia’s experience of coronavirus been like? What does lockdown currently look like in the region? Are businesses starting to open again?

A: In May, the Provincial Government announced BC’s Restart Plan, which outlines the next steps in BC’s strategy to move through the COVID-19 pandemic in 4 phases.

Currently, we are in Phase 2 of BC’s Restart Plan, where British Columbians have been asked to continue to avoid all non-essential, inter-community travel. British Columbians can, however, start to explore their own communities. This does not mean visiting neighbouring towns, but we can start to explore locally. Soon, if case numbers remain low, it’s expected that we’ll move into Phase 3 of the plan, where travel within British Columbia, by BC residents, will be permitted.

While many Indigenous communities in BC are closed to visitors, they look forward to you visiting in the future when it is safe to do so again. In the meantime, please visit Indigenous Tourism BC’s website for future travel inspiration.

Camping in BC reopened on 1 June, with some restrictions in place to ensure safety. While many campgrounds will open, some will remain closed and could gradually reopen through the summer. Please confirm with the campground directly before making any plans. Reservations are strongly recommended.

As of 1 June, BC Parks re-opened most provincial campgrounds and back-country camping, with reservations available to BC residents only. Provincial parks that attract large crowds will remain closed until it is safe to reopen at a later date. Backcountry campgrounds in some parks with high day use will also remain closed. Please see the BC Parks affected by COVID-19 website for anticipated re-opening dates for specific parks.

BC Ferries is operating at a reduced capacity, a limited schedule, and reduction of route service, due to directives from Transport Canada (federal jurisdiction). They ask travellers to avoid non-essential travel. Those who travel will be screened for symptoms before boarding at the ticketing booth.

Many tourism businesses – like hotels and lodges, outdoor adventure companies, wineries/breweries and other attractions – have been finding creative new ways to reopen over the past month, like rafting companies allowing people to book rafts for their “social bubble” of up to 6 people, and wineries offering pre-booked outdoor, distanced tastings.

Visit www.HelloBC.com for the most up to date travel information and advisories.

Biking along Stanley Park in Vancouver © GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock

Q: How has British Columbia been keeping in touch with visitors virtually during lockdown?

A: Throughout the pandemic, many tourism businesses in the province have pivoted to virtual experiences to bring the beauty of Super, Natural British Columbia® to the devices of past and hopeful visitors around the world. Here are just a few of the many experiences that have been shared:

  • The BC Wine Institute has created a series of virtual events: enjoy a virtual happy hour, learn about winemaking from respected winemakers or follow along a sommelier wine tasting you can savour from home.
  • Take a virtual field trip through the farm, garden and heritage site at The Grist Mill & Gardens in Keremeos led by the site’s operator and Manager, Chris Mathieson, who lives onsite with his family.
  • Virtual cooking classes from Terra Restaurant in Kamloops.
  • Culture Online is a great resource for online events in BC, from musicians giving free concerts to private online tours through museums.
  • Take an “After Dark” tour of the Audain Art Gallery in Whistler by torchlight.
  • Watch the live surf cam at Pacific Sands Beach Resort in Tofino.
  • Take a virtual boat ride off the coast of Vancouver Island with Indigenous owned Sea Wolf Adventures.
  • Barkerville Historic Site in the Cariboo has offered a number of fun ways to visit virtually.
  • Explore Haida Gwaii by sail boat with Bluewater Adventures.

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia © Destination British Columbia

Q: British Columbia is known for its breathtaking natural beauty, with dramatic mountainscapes and the best of the great outdoors. Does this make the region a promising place for socially distanced tourism?

A: Absolutely! From ranches in the Cariboo, to mountainside vineyards in the Similkameen Valley and enriching indigenous experiences in the north, there are splendours in every corner of British Columbia that can be enjoyed at a safe distance, while adhering to the latest provincial health directives. The new normal will look a bit different, but BC’s tourism industry is finding creative ways to pivot and welcome back guests in a safe manner.

Q: How will British Columbia be seeking to keep travellers safe when they come back?

A: While much of tourism in Canada happens in the summer, British Columbia is truly an all-season destination, with experiences for every type of traveller, in every season, in each corner of the province. Destination BC’s marketing and development strategies have focused on seasonal and geographic dispersion, to drive visitation in the shoulder seasons, and to parts of the province that have the most capacity to welcome visitors. These opportunities for dispersion, as well as flexible cancellation policies and mandated Provincial Government COVID-19 health & safety plans for operators, are advantageous now more than ever, as health, safety and appropriate distancing remain top of mind for visitors. All health and safety plans must follow the WorkSafeBC guidelines and be posted for customers.

Q: Remote locations offer opportunities to escape the crowds, meaning visitors can stay easily distanced. On the other hand, there’s a risk that visitors could bring the virus to remote communities, where medical assistance takes hours to arrive. How will these areas balance bringing visitors back and keeping their residents safe?

A: Once we reach Phase 3 of BC’s Restart Plan, where travel throughout BC (by residents) is once again permitted, we know that some communities may not be ready to welcome visitors right away, particularly the smaller communities who may not have the resources required to handle an outbreak. Destination BC is continuing to work with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, as well as municipal, community and regional partners on the ground, to ensure we are not encouraging visitation to any community that’s not ready for visitors. We are also encouraging residents to please respect the wishes of those communities, and only travel there once they’ve indicated they are ready to begin welcoming people.

Kootenay National Park, British Columbia © Yuguesh Fagoonee/Shutterstock

Q: What are your predictions for the tourist industry for the rest of the year and into 2021?

A: We expect that the world will look different when we all come out of this, and our industry will need to be prepared to meet the new expectations of travellers.

Leveraging our relationships with digital platforms like Google, Trip.com, WeChat and others around the world, we’ve recently set up a new signals team at Destination BC to help our organization and our BC industry understand how and when consumers are re-entering the travel marketplace.

Currently, consumers feel COVID-19 will influence them to travel closer to home, and not to crowded locations or spaces. This is a promising sign for our domestic/BC market, which typically has a shorter booking window than our international markets.

During times of economic uncertainty, we know that consumer behaviour shifts quite dramatically. So, as we plan for recovery in the future, we should expect that the majority of consumers will have:

  • More of a focus on the short-term
  • Delayed spending on big purchases – travel plans are often in this bracket
  • Lower risk tolerance – so your cancellation, refund and raincheck policies become very important
  • More price-sensitive shopping – financially stressed consumers will be seeking out deals and lower prices
  • Seek out brands they trust as an important purchase decision driver.

At this point in time, consumers are saying two things that are important for tourism operators to consider:

  • I will plan my travel last-minute to be flexible in a fast-changing situation
  • I will plan my travel as I normally would, if I can get:
    • Free-of-charge cancellations
    • ticket refunds
    • waived re-booking fees
    • travel insurance

Siwash Rock at low tide, Vancouver © Mike Benna/Shutterstock

Q: Do you have some ideas for how travellers could spend their summer in British Columbia?

A: British Columbia has unique experiences to offer every type of traveller in every corner of the province. Below are some ideas for inspiration, but visitors can visit www.HelloBC.com for the most up-to-date travel information and advisories, and for travel idea inspiration.

Vancouver & Sea to Sky

  • Top spots for exploration in Vancouver include the gardens, forests and beaches of Stanley Park; the restaurants, galleries and artists’ studios of Granville Island; and the historic districts of Gastown, Chinatown and Yaletown.
  • Whistler is home to North America’s largest ski resort and is a year-round mountain playground. Pair a morning of crisp turns on the mountain with an afternoon on the golf course, or spend your day hiking, or relaxing lakeside.
    • Learn about the area’s rich Indigenous culture and shared traditional territory at the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre.

West Coast Culture

  • Along the east coast of the Vancouver Island, you’ll find long, sheltered sandy beaches in communities like Parksville and Courtenay/Comox – ideal for family holidays.
  • The North Island, the region’s least populated area, is an ideal setting for getting lost in nature.
    • Kayaking with orcas, grizzly watching, caving, fishing and scuba diving are all on offer here.
    • Learn about the area’s rich indigenous culture and hike the northern tip of the Cape Scott Trail.
  • With a nod to its English heritage, Victoria is filled with gardens and seafront parks, stately hotels and museums, bohemian eateries and craft brewers.

Echo Valley, Cariboo Chilton Coast, British Columbia © Blake Jorgenson/Destination British

Vineyards, Valleys & Lakes

  • The Okanagan Valley is a top British Columbia wine region (and the province’s largest), producing award-winning vintages. Sample what’s on offer with local experts on a guided tour or opt for a self-guided trip through tasting rooms of your choosing.
  • Indigenous-owned golf, spa and cultural experiences are also available to visitors in this region.
  • Continue along Highway 3 and watch the landscape change as you travel through the historic communities of Boundary Country, with fertile fields, lush valleys, lakes, rivers and mountains.
  • A wide river valley patchwork of barns, dairies and fields flanked by steep mountains, the Fraser Valley is all about agriculture.

Ranchlands, Rivers & Ranges

  • The Gold Rush Trail marks the path of prospectors who came in search of adventure and wealth. Today, Barkerville Historic Town recounts the past in a recreated 1860s boomtown.
  • The golden grasslands of this region also follow traditional indigenous trade routes leading to heritage villages and traditional fishing sites.
  • The Bridge River Fishing Grounds is the past and current fishing area for the St’at’imc People. Learn about the traditional wind-dried method of preserving salmon still used by its people today, and visit an arcaeological village site.
  • Visit cowboy country for a unique guest ranch experience, from the rugged to the luxurious.

Helmcken Falls, British Columbia © Dr. J. Beller/Shutterstock

Mountain Peaks & Towns

  • Enormous snowy peaks, clear lakes, and waterfalls characterize this mountain playground in southeastern British Columbia, where visitors can expect backcountry adventures, endless singletrack mountain bike trails, mineral hot springs and small towns with vibrant arts and culture scenes.
  • The Kootenays have a uniquely relaxed vibe, with communities grounded in mountain culture and artistic lifestyles, such as Revelstoke, Nelson and Rossland.
  • The communities of Valemount and Clearwater are gateways to the adjacent wilderness areas; many guiding companies and accommodation options are centred in each.

Northern Wild

  • Scattered with small, friendly towns and cities just steps away from vast, raw nature, BC’s north boasts some of Canada’s greatest road, rail and sea journeys.
  • Prince George serves at the region’s hub, offerings the amenities of a thriving city within mere minutes of pristine forests.
  • This route winds through the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, dubbed the “Serengeti of the North.” Moose, deer, caribou, Stone’s sheep and bison can all be spotted from the highway.

Vancuover from Stanley Park, British Columbia © Pixabay

Q: The handling of the coronavirus in the USA has been one fraught with controversy. Could American travellers still be some of the first welcomed back to Canadian shores?

A: The US is BC’s largest international market, with many operators relying on visitation from our American neighbours each year. As borders are under federal jurisdiction, we can’t speculate on when or how our international borders may reopen. The Government of BC is in frequent conversations with our Federal Government on the issue, and we know that any decision made will be dependent the health conditions of our own provinces and country, as well as the countries of origin.

Q: What lessons do you think we can take forward with us once Covid-19 has passed?

A: Our industry will need to continue to be creative and agile in all that we do. As our businesses and communities open up to visitors – first locally, then from across BC, from around Canada and finally from international markets, they’ll need to adjust their product and destination experiences to meet our new reality.

The future visitor may not be the same as the visitor from pre-COVID times. We already know they will need more information on safety and health protocols. They will have a stronger desire, initially, for nature-based and small-town experiences. They may shift from air travel to driving on their own, certainly at the outset.

We’ve also seen that smaller group experiences will be more appealing, as people are now more sensitive to larger crowds and events.

And there may be an increase in multi-generational travel, as people are initially looking to spend more time with family members they haven’t been able to see through this crisis. Some are expected to look for more sustainable and regenerative tourism practices.

In addition, they will continue to look for human connections and interactive experiences, that provide a deeper sense of a place and its culture, such as attending farm-to-table cooking classes and meeting indigenous artisans.

Top image and above: Skookumchuck Narrows near Nelson Island, British Columbia, Canada © EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Find even more inspiration for Canada here

Ready to travel and discover Canada?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels