Merritt benefits from controversial closure of Coquihalla Highway tourism centre | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Merritt benefits from controversial closure of Coquihalla Highway tourism centre

The now closed provincial tourism centre at the junction of Highway 5 and Highway 97C is seen in this undated image from Google Street View.
July 22, 2020 - 7:00 AM

The visitor centre in downtown Merritt is seeing an increase in visits following the controversial closure of its provincial counterpart on the Coquihalla Highway outside of town.

Sandy Carnow, the manager of Baillie House, which houses the Merritt Tourism Centre, said they've seen around 6,000 more people since the province's tourism centre on the highway closed, going from around 24,00 visits to about 30,000 last year. She said in the summertime, they get around 200 visits a day.

Visitor numbers have been down so far this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic

This year, there's been less visitors because of COVID-19, in June there were barely any visitors but the last few weeks have been busy.

Carnow said even with the city's tourism centre’s temporary closure due to COVID-19, they were still getting phone calls and emails about forestry campgrounds when B.C. Parks were closed for camping.

READ MORE: B.C. tourism industry wants $680M from government to rebuild after COVID-19 pandemic

The provincial visitor centre, located at Highway 5 and Highway 97C closed in 2018. Merritt businesses and the mayor at the time were against the closure, but now they’re benefitting as more visitors drive into town, she said.

“The downtown restaurants got way busier, and you see all these people that you don’t recognize… they’re coming downtown and experiencing our downtown,” she said. “Some people, when (the provincial tourism centre) first closed... were irate that it took four minutes to drive downtown.”

READ MORE: Tourism hotspots in the Okanagan navigating COVID-19 scares

Up until 2018, Destination B.C. ran the visitor centre, which was one of six in the province that they were transitioning out of, said Kathleen Harvey, manager, visitor services calling from Destination BC.

“With Merritt, it was obviously a popular stop for a lot of people but it was primarily being used as a washroom stop and not for tourism information,” she said. “The site itself was in need of significant upgrades to the infrastructure.”

There’s also other washrooms and tourism centres along that corridor that could be used by visitors, she said.

“We transitioned out of that centre and now work directly with Tourism Merritt and ultimately it’s become a good news story for downtown Merritt,” she said.

“Since the closure in 2018, significant input has been received from the public, First Nations and local government regarding possible development at the site,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources. “The ministry continues to work with local First Nations, through the application process, on a proposed development for the site."

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