Banff National Park Sets Visitor Record, Another Expected This Year

Authorities say they are trying to mitigate human impacts, but conservationists fear not enough is being done.

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The country’s most popular national park is expected to welcome a record number of visitors this year after reaching a new peak in 2023, Parks Canada officials say.

While those officials say they are working to mitigate the growing human impact on the mountain jewel, conservationists fear not enough is being done.

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“We’ve been concerned about degradation and fragmentation (of wildlife habitat) and that’s what we’re seeing in Banff National Park,” said Chloe Hahn, conservation coordinator for the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society. Wild (CPAWS).

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In 2023-24, the park welcomed 4.288 million people, an increase from the 4.181 million visitors recorded in 2017-18.

In 2010, around 499,000 people visited the park in the peak month of August, a figure that has since increased by more than a third.

Canada’s next busiest national park is Jasper, which in 2022-23 welcomed 2.4 million visitors.

“Records were broken in May, June and July (last year in Banff) and we expect them to increase this summer,” said Daniella Rubeling, visitor experience manager for Parks Canada.

“Business and international visitation is picking up and, with regional visitation still strong, we expect to see that.”

Although cold conditions, sometimes even snowy, reduced potential traffic in the park during the May long weekend, campgrounds and attractions were still busy, setting the tone for the upcoming peak season, he said.

In response to growing crowds, Parks Canada last year ended private vehicle parking at Moraine Lake, replaced shuttle bus service and nearly doubled the Lake Louise lakefront parking fee from last year to encourage the use of bus transportation, which has also expanded. .

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Bus-only visits to spectacular Moraine Lake decreased slightly in 2023 from the previous year, from 5,500 to 5,100 per day, Parks Canada said.

One change aimed at better managing crowds has been the recently expanded Peyto Lake overlook north of Lake Louise.

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But Rubeling said demand for shuttle buses has sometimes left behind visitors, who have expressed frustration over the challenges of reaching scenic destinations.

“We’ve seen people get disappointed when they don’t plan ahead (with alternatives). They assume things are like they were 20 years ago,” she said.

“Planning ahead doesn’t mean a plan the day before, but well in advance.”

Accessibility, conservation among challenges

With more difficult access to some mountain amenities and higher parking fees, some Albertans have expressed concern that access to Banff National Park has become elitist and increasingly geared toward international travelers.

Rubeling said a priority remains ensuring access for Canadians, but that comes with the need to balance it with the health of the park.

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“It is very important that our parks remain accessible to all Canadians, but there are challenges,” he said.

Parks Canada should be credited with taking some “really important” steps to mitigate the impacts of increased visitation, said Hahn of CPAWS.

But he said those measures are too often taken in isolation rather than in a comprehensive and unified manner.

“We’re looking for something that ties those strategies together,” Hahn said. “If you don’t limit visitors to other areas and don’t have ways to ensure they don’t harm the ecosystem, it’s a problem.”

An example of an inconsistent approach, he said, are measures to increase private vehicle parking in the Banff city area.

Banff Traffic
A line of slow traffic enters Banff in June 2019. postmedia archive photo

Parks Canada’s Rubeling said the agency is constantly reviewing the need for changes in visitor management, adding that expansion of parking fees to heavily used destinations like Johnston Canyon is not imminent.

“Each area may take a slightly different approach and paid parking is one of the things that is used in Lake Louise,” he said.

But Hahn said some of the problems facing Banff National Park and its wildlife habitat lie outside its boundaries.

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“You also have to take into account things in Canmore and the (imminent) Three Sisters development that have a huge cumulative impact on how wildlife moves through the area,” he said.

He said his group is not opposed to public access to national parks like Banff, but rather “figuring out where in the park there should be more people.”

“And we have to make sure that solutions like transportation are sustainable, like their fuel source.”

A Banff-based company is pushing for a hydrogen-powered passenger rail link from Calgary International Airport that would stop in the city center and continue to the mountain city.

But Liricon Capital says the province’s failure to approve the plan that would reduce vehicle traffic in time threatens to doom it.

‘We have a problem with vehicles, not so much with people’

Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) are watching to see whether growing crowds at the park impact its international reputation and are working to extend more of those visits into quieter months while also improving the visitor experience, its vice president of Destination Development, David Matys. .

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“Our reputation around the world is extremely high, but there are pain points around mobility,” he said.

“We are monitoring visitor sentiment very closely so as not to damage our reputation.”

Its marketing promotes the winter and shoulder seasons by targeting those “who care about the park, who share the same values” to relieve the pressure of summer and change the work cycle that causes layoffs at the end of summer, Matys said.

Since the pandemic, regional and local visitation has taken over a larger slice of the tourism pie and that means more motorists, which is less sustainable, he said, adding that BLLT agrees with Parks Canada’s efforts to mitigate those pressures. .

“We have a vehicle problem, not so much a people problem,” Matys said.

Conservationist Hahn said she wonders if increasing human pressure on Banff National Park could one day lead to visitation limits or other restrictions.

“That’s the million-dollar question that people still don’t have an answer to: When do you get to the point where there are too many visitors?” she said, adding that more studies are needed on the park’s ecological capacity.

“It’s a topic that most people don’t want to talk about, but it has to be considered.”

[email protected]

X: @BillKaufmannjrn

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