COVID-19 shut down travel for much of the world in 2020, but its impact on Harrison Hot Springs wasn’t as dire as one might expect.
“Harrison has always been a fair weather destination,” said Robert Reyerse, executive director of Tourism Harrison. “During COVID that’s been amplified.”
Since the financial crisis in 2008, tourism in Harrison has been on a slow upswing. Numbers reached their peak in 2019, when the community saw an explosion of winter tourists heading to the lake, and summer travel had reached a plateau.
“We were expecting 2020 to be a very similar year to 2019,” Reyerse said. “Healthy occupancy for the hotels, healthy day tripper traffic. Our plan was to make Lights by the Lake a little bit bigger and better, and to focus on our events.”
That changed in March, when Harrison council shut the village down to visitors and hotels closed their rooms for reservations.
Tourism Harrison cancelled its events for the year — although it did manage to continue the Canada Day and Bands by the Beach traditions with virtual events.
“Basically the whole village really shut down for two months,” Reyerse said.
Hotels were essentially closed, and the village shut down access to Esplanade Avenue, reducing traffic to businesses in the waterfront area.
That closure resulted in hotel occupancy being down to nearly half of what it was in 2019, a number that has also been impacted by the Harrison Hot Springs Resort only offering 200 of their 340 rooms to visitors.
However, “given what rooms were available, people did come back during the summer,” Reyerse said.
International travel was down — Americans tend to make up around 15 per cent of resort visitors — but local travel increased, particularly for those within a day’s drive of the town.
“Because the message was get outside, and it’s safer to be outside, we saw, particularly on nice days, that Harrison was a very busy place during the summer,” Reyerse said.
“On nice days we’re very very busy, and now on rainy days we’re very very slow,” he continued. “So you see quite the swings in terms of visitors to Harrison.
“Nice days, very very busy. Rainy days, it’s a ghost town.”
Overall, however, the trend was less money being spent in town.
“People would come, want to go for a walk, but then grab an ice cream or a coffee or something like that,” Reyerse said.
“It was a kind of varied impact, but generally I would say overall there was a trend to spending less money.”
This meant that some businesses, like those selling ice creams and some restaurants, had better success than those who rely on visitors from further away: souvenir shops selling trinkets to out-of-towners, for example.
For this year, Tourism Harrison is hoping some of the impacts of COVID-19 will begin to dissipate. Although they aren’t expecting to hold anywhere near the number of events they would normally, they do have plans to potentially revive outdoor events like Sasquatch Days and Lights by the Lake.
“We redirected some of our event money to Lights by the Lake, so we have a lot of new displays that we didn’t get to use [in 2020],” Reyerse said.
Lights by the Lake was cancelled for this winter due to rising case numbers and a ban on non-essential travel.
“We hope to be able to use them this year.”
Whether that happens depends on what the COVID-19 pandemic looks like in the coming months.
“We want people to come here, but we want them to do it in a safe way,” Reyerse said.
“Once the restrictions on travel are lifted, we’ll continue on that.”
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