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Excerpt: All-Time High



By Ryan Stuart

An unprecedented number of visitors are heading to Banff National Park, with a million more tourists passing through the gates in just the last five years. Has the beloved park reached its limits?

Like people in many tourist destinations, most of those who now call the town of Banff home didn’t grow up there. Heather Williams1 is one of the lucky exceptions: her parents moved to Banff when she was a kid and she’s lived there most of her life.

She remembers Banff always being busy. And it was: in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, about three million people visited Banff National Park every year. Some explored the vast wilderness through skiing, hiking and mountain climbing. But almost everyone stopped in the town, which possesses a footprint of less than five square kilometres. 

Williams remembers the town had issues even when she was a teenager: RV traffic backing up Banff Avenue, busloads of tourists clogging sidewalks, lineups at the post office, human-wildlife conflicts, and no parking. But Banff was her home. It was easy to overlook a few little pains to have such an amazing backyard. After high school, she left for university but returned every summer and then moved back to start a business of her own.  

“Banff is a refuge. A place where I come back to who I am,” Williams says. “I chose to live in Banff, because I want the life I had growing up for my family.”

Then things got a whole lot busier. The number of annual visitors, which had only changed slightly since she was a kid, grew from about 3.3 million in 2014 to 4.2 million in 2019. 

On the busiest weekends in the summer of 2019, there wasn’t a vacant parking spot at Moraine Lake at 6 a.m. At 8 a.m., the 500 spots at the upper Lake Louise parking lot were all taken. By lunchtime, Parks Canada staff were turning people away from overflow lots – massive parking areas near the highway where shuttle buses move people around. When they did find a parking spot, tourists found the trails just as busy. They lined up at waterfalls and iconic vistas to snap selfies. 

But the crowds were worst inside the town of Banff’s boundaries. The Town estimates its car capacity at 24,000 vehicles per day. Anything more and the downtown streets clog. In the summer of 2019, that threshold was surpassed on more than 50 days. Parking spots anywhere near the main drag were impossible to find just about any time of day. By mid-afternoon, vehicles lined up two kilometres to cross the bridge over the Bow River in Banff, the town’s worst traffic chokepoint. At the two grocery stores, checkout lines snaked down the aisles all day long. Shelves of staple foods were empty.

Most visitors didn’t mind; visitor satisfaction remains high, according to Parks Canada. But for those who live there, life was suddenly hard.

All those people increase the chances of negative impacts on wild animals, like vehicle collisions and harassment. Park wardens put down several wolves and bears in recent years after they became habituated to human food. Ecologically, more boots on the trails increases erosion, tramples vegetation and risks introducing invasive species. For the humans, it becomes hard just to buy groceries, get their kids to lessons on time, and find parking anywhere near their homes.

“The last five years have been exponentially different,” Williams says. “The problems are no different, just majorly amplified.”

But speaking out about them is not easy in a place where more than 90 per cent of residents link their livelihood to tourism. Being an entrepreneur and knowing every other business owner in Banff is more complicated than being a teen and knowing every other kid in town. Williams doesn’t feel like she can speak openly without repercussions, so we’ve changed her name.

She feels that many local businesses, the Town, and Parks Canada have tunnel vision. It seems to her that they just want more and more tourists without considering the environment, the residents, or the wildlife. 

“It’s hard to hate on tourism because it’s everyone’s bread and butter,” she says. “But I don’t know that we should be looking for more. It feels as though what we see is enough.”

. . .

→ Keep reading this feature in Volume 5 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.

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