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Gas pains? Don't worry, be happy

BC’s tourism sector quietly hoping pain at the pump won’t deter road trips

Unless you've been living under a rock, you’re likely well aware of the politics and fingerpointing surrounding record high gasoline prices across British Columbia.

But as the "pain at the pump" blame game unfolds, we are once again reminded that perception isn't necessarily reality. Oh sure, while the cost of a fill up is no doubt putting a strain on tight personal finances, the all-important B.C. tourism industry isn’t setting its hair on fire over fuel at this point.

Or at least, they aren't showing it.

"At this point in time, I don't share those concerns," responds Stephen Pearce, Tourism Vancouver's vice president of marketing when asked about the potential impact of record high fuel prices.

He explains that for the moment, they have no actual data to suggest that the cost of driving could sway summer vacation travel. In fact, the 2019 Metro Vancouver tourist count is actually running ahead of last year's pace, with April's hotel occupancy 4% higher than a year ago.

"The numbers I look at with respect to our hotels are still very strong," says Pearce.

That said, Pearce points out Vancouver tourism officials are keenly aware of a "what if" scenario should rubber tire tourism traffic nosedive. While Tourism Vancouver is hopeful the number of Americans driving across the border will remain robust thanks to the strong US dollar, Pearce is less convinced that headlines about North America's highest fuel costs in Vancouver won't cause out-of-province Canadians to think twice.

Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., generally shares this cautious optimism, but does admit being somewhat apprehensive about the impact of expensive fuel.

"In scenarios like this, people do tend to travel less distance than previously planned,” says Judas, quick to point out that fuel costs will impact other areas of the tourism industry such as transportation companies, service providers, and suppliers.

For Ellen Matthews, vice president of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, the glaring spotlight on record pump prices raises perception concerns.

Ellen Matthews

While readily admitting her region's reliance on rubber tire vacation traffic, Matthews is hoping travellers adopt a pragmatic approach to gasoline costs:

"We are hoping that when it comes to gas prices, people will look at it and say yes, it's an increase – but at the end of the day what it really means is one less dinner out."

However, recent polling by Nanos Research would seem to suggest that record high gasoline prices do pose a threat to this summer's tourism season.

The survey, commissioned by CTV News, found that 38% of Canadians are worried and 32% are somewhat worried about rising fuel costs.

In British Columbia, that concern is more pronounced: 68% of respondents are convinced that Canadians are likely or somewhat likely to drive less during the summer because of rising fuel.

"I do think we need to temper our message in many ways," laments Matthews, while expressing her concern about media coverage and political rhetoric surrounding gasoline costs. Perception caused by negative headlines becomes reality, and Matthews fears "some stories will turn people off."

Like nearly all British Columbia, tourism is a powerful economic engine in the Interior. While last year's overall traffic through the Thompson Okanagan was hindered by wildfires, that region still counted 4.5 million overnight stays by British Columbians from outside the area, and 2.2 million overnight stops by Albertans.

Only time will determine how tourism fares amid record high fuel prices. While there are no obvious indicators at this point, there is widespread concern; tourism-related businesses are nervous.

While B.C.'s vacation sector is no stranger to challenges after two straight record setting wildfire seasons, the current pain at the pumps poses the possibility of a double whammy.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticism on Twitter @kammornanchor and email: [email protected].

Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.