More tourists are coming to visit the area’s rivers and lakes. (Betsy Kline/Castlegar News)

Smoke-free summer a boon for West Kootenay tourism

Tourism centres seeing numbers up

Tourism officials say all in all, 2019 is turning out to be a pretty good year for visitors to the West Kootenay.

“We’re really busy, and we definitely know it’s up,” says Tammy Verigin-Burk, the head of the Castlegar Chamber of Commerce and its visitor centre. While they won’t have official stats until September, she says the season is very different from years past.

“Last year with all the smoke, it was a challenging year for everybody in the tourism sector, but this year it’s just remarkable how many people we’re getting through here,” she says.

Verigin-Burk says they are seeing a lot of eastern Canadians and Europeans come through the doors in Castlegar.

Verigin-Burk says those numbers might be due to the unfavourable exchange rate with the U.S., let alone the violence in that country prompting people to stay home.

She also points to marketing efforts promoting Highway 3 as bearing fruit this year.

“Tour busses will often just go on Highway 1, and we miss them,” she says. “So it’s wonderful to see, that whole piece of work that’s being done with the mayors’ coalition, as well as the Kootenay Rockies Tourism, we have a lot of us involved in that process and it’s really exciting.”

Verigin-Burk says they are seeing more campers this year, and campgrounds are filling up regularly this summer. Another new trend this year is people stopping and staying in Castlegar’s Millienium Park.

“A lot of families are coming in, visiting for Sculpturewalk and finding Millennium Park and loving it, and coming back and vacationing.”

In Rossland, the Museum and Discovery Centre has been busy enough to keep nine summer student staff busy.

“Our June numbers were significantly higher than last year, by about a third,” says museum operations manager Emily Roberts. “However, our July numbers weren’t as grand as last year.”

“Otherwise our season is going really well,” she says. “We do need a lot of staff staff on everyday to facilitate all the projects we have ongoing, our tours three times a day, etc.”

Roberts says they’ve seen solid numbers show up for special events as well, like farmers’ market days, Canada and B.C. Days, and the Columbia Basin Culture Tour.

“July was busy and August has been very busy so far,” says Val Yowek, the manager of the Nelson visitors’ centre. “Our local accommodators felt the numbers were down, due to the cooler July, but the stats that we record — people who come through our doors — show we are up about nine per cent compared to last year.”

Yowek says Nelson is seeing an influx of American tourists.

“We’re seeing not so many Europeans — they come earlier in the season — but we have a lot of Americans coming up, doing the Selkirk Loop. So that’s good.”

Without reports of forest fires daily in the media, BC Tourism is rebounding, she says.

“We had people calling the last few years, so many panicking — ‘Is B.C. burning?’ they’d ask — and they were changing their minds because of what they saw in the media.

“Fortunately we haven’t had that this year.”

In Nakusp, it’s more of a mixed bag.

“This year has been pretty good, the rain this year has prevented people more than the smoke, surprisingly,” says Kiley Waterfield, a summer student working at the visitors’ centre.

But that same rain is also a boon for one of the community’s largest attractions, the municipally-owned hot springs.

“I’ve been working here for 12 years steady now, and this is the busiest year I’ve seen, for sure,” says Noel Ballard, the hot springs supervisor. “Camping, chalets, pools, the works, we’ve been packed.

“A big factor for us is the weather. In the summertime, we always have more traffic, just because there are more people coming to the area. But when it’s raining in the summer, people come to the pools,” he says. In July, that meant the facility was packed almost every day.

“Because what else are you going to do?”

SEE: July felt wetter, cooler but actually near normal

Something else some people might do is the Mount Abriel bike trails, touted as the next big thing to attract people to Nakusp. But Waterfield says it really hasn’t kicked in yet as a major draw.

“We have have had more people we’ve been sending off cycling,” she says. “We’ve had some world-renowned people coming here. We’ve had some amazing reviews of Mount Abriel.

“But I don’t think it will start bringing in more people until about two years from now, because they’re not focusing right now on advertising. They’re in the third year of the five-year construction project.”

Things may not be perfect everywhere, but the season has tourism officials smiling.

“Everyone’s on an adventure,” says Castlegar’s Verigin-Burk. “And it’s really exciting, for some reason there’s a shift in energy for Canadians.

“Maybe it’s because of the lack of smoke.”

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Fishing remains a real attractor for tourists. In this file photo Dave Larocque of Castlegar angles on the Columbia River. File photo

Bike trails remain a popular tourism activity in the West Kootenay. File photo

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