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‘Shot in the arm’: Okanagan tourism operators welcome COVID-19 travel ban lift

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WATCH: Okanagan tourism operators felt the pinch as a nearly two-month-long inter-provincial travel ban in B.C. to combat COVID-19 slowed business to a crawl. But that all changed on Tuesday. Recreational travellers are allowed to hit the road - once again-- opening the flood gates to visitors from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Shelby Thom reports. – Jun 15, 2021

Okanagan tourism operators rejoiced on Monday as the B.C. government announced the nearly two-month-long COVID-19 travel ban in B.C. will be lifted tomorrow.

Brian Stewart, manager of Penticton Bike Rentals on Lakeshore Drive, said prospective out-of-town customers cancelled their reservations after their hotel bookings were postponed.

“It’s great and it couldn’t come any sooner,” he said, as B.C. enters stage two if its opening plan.

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

Recreational travel within the province has been restricted since April 23, when Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general, issued an order using extraordinary powers under the Emergency Program Act to prohibit non-essential travel between three regional zones.

British Columbians could not travel outside of their zone, which included the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and Northern Interior.

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RCMP established roadblocks on major B.C. highways at intermittent times and violators could have received a $575 fine.

John Skinner, the proprietor of Painted Rock Estate Winery in Penticton, said wine consumers from the Lower Mainland mostly heeded the travel order.

“People really behaved. We didn’t get a lot of visitors from the Lower Mainland, and fair enough, but now we are really reaping the rewards of that because the infection rates are down substantially and people are getting inoculated,” he said.

Read more: B.C. now has fewer COVID-19 patients in hospital than were in ICU alone at peak of 3rd wave

Skinner said the travel ban being lifted in conjunction with events being permitted with up to 50 people is the news tourism operators were waiting for.

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“I think it’s very exciting for everybody, provided everyone is reasonable. I think going forward, people just have to be as safe as they can and use their best judgment,” he said.

“For businesses, it’s really going to be a shot in the arm.”

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Tony Holler, owner of Poplar Grover Winery, said the business has hired additional staff in anticipation of a busy summer season.

“We have already hired staff expecting a much higher demand this year,” he said, while encouraging visitors to book their reservations far in advance to avoid disappointment.

Thom Tischik, executive director of Travel Penticton, said the city’s tourism arm welcomes to evolution of the COVID-19 restart plan.

“Careful consideration to public health and safety balanced with a gradual approach to reopening is crucial for long-term success of our tourism industry,” Tischik said.

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“Travel Penticton welcomes our BC residents to travel back to the City and South Okanagan region and ask all to follow the BC Ministry of Health COVID Safety protocols when visiting our area businesses.”

Read more: B.C. could nearly wipe out COVID-19 by September with 70% contact rate and high vaccine uptake: officials

According to the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA), April 2020 saw the lowest number of Canadian travellers visiting the region during that year, decreasing by 72 per cent when compared to April 2019.

Overall, 2020 saw a decrease of 24 per cent in total visitation, due to higher numbers in the summer months bringing up the full year’s average, TOTA said.

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The recent months of April and May 2021, during B.C.’s travel ban, saw the lowest number of Canadian travellers visiting the region to date, it says, with numbers down 300 per cent during the week ending May 2 compared to the same week in 2019.

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“We’ve been waiting for a long time for this to happen,” said acting president and CEO Ellen-Walker Matthews.

She said the tourism industry isn’t out of the woods yet.

Read more: ‘We’re not immune to it’: Grand Forks now among B.C.’s COVID-19 hot spots

“last year at this time there was a lot of money being granted or loaned, and that same money isn’t available a second time around, so a lot of these businesses trying to get to the finish line made it through winter, but with the circuit breaker, it was really challenging for them, and many may not make it.”

Matthews added that staffing shortages will be another issue.

“We know a lot of people have left the industry and all the employers, big and small, are struggling to find people to come back to work,” she said.

The Okanagan’s alcohol producers, a sector that relies heavily on tourism, also welcomes the removal of travel restrictions.

“Our member breweries understand the value of tourism, and we are hopeful that the lifted travel restrictions will inject some much-needed tourism dollars into these small businesses,” said Ken Beattie, executive director with the BC Craft Brewers Guild.

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Read more: COVID Delta variant a ‘concern’ but not spreading rapidly: B.C. officials

B.C. said it’s moving to step two of its reopening plan because 75 per cent of adults are vaccinated with heir first dose, and COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations continue to steadily decline.

“I am confident that we are on track to safely and confidently bridge to Step 2, and am amending the relevant provincial health officer’s orders so we can do just that,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.

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“The data shows us that with strong safety plans in place and all of us continuing to use our layers of protection, we can now increase our much-needed social connections a little bit more.”

Other changes include a maximum of 50 people allowed at outdoor personal gatherings and indoor seated organized events, like the reopening of movie theatres, live theatre and banquet halls.

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Indoor faith gatherings are permitted with a maximum of 50 people, or 10 per cent of total capacity, whichever number is greater, with safety plans in place.

Fifty spectators are also allowed at outdoor sports, high-intensity fitness classes can resume, and liquor can be served at establishments until midnight.

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