September 02, 2015 - 1:00 PM
PENTICTON - Wildfire smoke and a sudden change in the weather has blemished what was a stellar summer in the South Okanagan, according to local tourist operators.
The Penticton area was hit hard by smoky skies during the last week of August, conditions which were followed by a sudden change in the weather to cooler fall-like conditions this week.
Earlier this week the beach scene was much different than would normally be at this time of year in Penticton, with few people seen along the shores of either lake.
Many venues that were crowded with tourists less than two weeks ago were closed due to weather. Rylie Gallagher of Penticton’s Wibit Water Park near the SS Sicamous says business dropped to half of what was anticipated last week when the smoke pall descended on the city.
“It hit us hard. We have two locations, the other in Kelowna, but Penticton was hit hardest,” Gallagher says.
The hazy skies cooled things down so quickly many potential customers decided against going out on the water, he says. The haze also made it difficult to breathe and uncomfortable for some, including an employee who couldn’t work because her asthma flared up.
“Now the haze is gone, but it’s cool. Normally Labour Day weekend is a pretty strong time of year, but with temperatures forecast in the 23 to 24 degree range, it’s not going to be what we’d hoped for,” he says, adding, “It feels like late September today.”
The Penticton Wibit Park was closed on Monday but Gallagher says he’s watching the weather and is hopeful things will improve enough to warrant opening later this week before he officially closes for the season Sept. 8.
“Right now, it’s quite cold. I don’t want to be open, only to provide half the experience it could be,” he says.
Down the street in Lakawanna Park, Keeley Bachman was looking after the Our Little Donut Factory concession on Lakeshore Drive.
“We’ve had three customers today,” she said Monday afternoon. “It felt like a ghost town last week. Summers’ coming to an end.”
At the other end of the city, South Beach Campground co-manager Kim Anweiler says when the smoke moved in last week, things 'definitely slowed down a bit.'
“September tends to be slow, but with the smoke, it was definitely slower than last year,” she says, adding Labour Day occurring so late this year might also factor into a slow final week before the last holiday weekend of summer.
“When it got really smoky last week, there were several campers requesting refunds,” she says, “it was a good summer, otherwise.”
Tourism Penticton Chair Diana Stirling, who also operates Loco Landing, says 25 various companies and businesses representing various tourism sectors, including retail, restaurants, wineries, attractions and other venues in the area were polled last week after the smoke settled into the valley. She received replies from 18 of the 25 operators polled.
“The general feeling is that June and July were up this year, with August tracking strong until early last week,” Stirling says.
One of the city’s larger accommodators reported cancellations of 150 rooms within a 48-hour period last week but Stirling says the accommodator was able to fill 72 of those room up by the end of the day.
“We heard from the larger accommodators, yes they were getting cancellations due to the smoke, but they were also getting a percentage of those rooms filled up again,” she says, adding there wasn’t too much concern at that point. “What we now have is a change in the weather, and this chill. That’s affecting businesses like the Wibit waterpark, patios, and shopping.”
Stirling says wineries were reporting between 60 and 80 per cent declines in 'drive up' customers during last week’s smoky period as well.
“The last two weeks of August haven’t been as strong as we’d hoped, from a tourism perspective,” she says, noting her business at Loco Landing had a strong year, but slowed considerably this week.
The Labour Day weekend occurs late on the calendar this year, which actually gave summer tourism operators an extra week they don’t usually get, Stirling notes, providing few historical markers to compare this week’s business to.
Stirling also noted Alberta family tourist traffic has greatly diminished throughout the Okanagan this week, as their students returned to school.
“September is gearing up to be a great month,” Stirling says, noting a number of upcoming events including the Go Media convention in October that should help keep numbers up well into the shoulder season.
Operators are hopeful they will see more normal weather conditions return in time for the last long weekend of summer. Environment Canada is forecasting a return to sunshine with temperatures in the low 20s for Friday, Sept. 4, through Monday, Sept. 7.
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015