Expect larger than normal crowds this summer in Banff, an already tourist-stuffed resort town within Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Calgary Reviews/flickr)
You can call it the Iceland syndrome.
It’s what happens when you live somewhere so overstuffed with staggering natural beauty that you feel compelled to share it with the world. This is understandable — after all, there are enough stunning waterfalls, scenic vistas and otherworldly lava fields to go around for everyone, right?
And so they come. And they don't stop. Idling tour buses line rural highways; hiking trails become overrun; trampling, trespassing and straight-out disrespectful behavior becomes a major problem. The ultra-dramatic natural landscapes that you once held so sacred — and had no qualms with showing off — become a liability, an encumbrance. The tourism economy is booming — hotels, restaurants, rental car agencies and kitsch-hawking souvenir shops certainly aren’t complaining — but at what cost?
This isn’t to say that Canada — a preternatural beauty in her own right — is heading in the same direction as Iceland anytime soon. For one, it’s just a wee bit bigger — roughly 3,760,000 square miles larger than the once-sleepy Nordic island nation that many consider "ruined" by a certain HBO fantasy series. There’s no ruining Canada.
But this doesn’t mean that Canadian conservationists and wildlife experts aren’t concerned about the summer ahead, a summer in which all 39 of the country’s national parks (along with national historic sites and national marine conservation areas) will be open to the public — foreign tourists, included — for free in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Wait … free admission to national parks during Canada’s sesquicentennial? That’s fantastic! Alberta, here we come!
Or maybe hold that thought — or at least proceed with care.
It’s not that conservationists are discouraging visitors from frequenting Parks Canada’s finest protected natural spaces altogether. However, they are imploring park-goers — this includes the carloads of American tourists heading north of the border due in part to the favorable exchange rate — to tread carefully and be mindful of the toll that record-busting visitor numbers can have on wildlife and fragile natural ecosystems.
A recent article published by AFP spells out the top concerns: "… while the expected influx will be a boon to the tourism industry, increased traffic also means more reckless behavior by visitors — approaching or feeding wild animals, stomping on flora, and littering along park roadways."
Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director of the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), is one such conservationist who is fretting about the unusually busy months ahead.
She largely faults Parks Canada, claiming that officials, buoyed by $300 million in additional governmental funding over the next two years, have placed a disproportionate amount of energy on promoting the parks. With commercial interests taking precedent, protecting the parks, particularly during an abnormally busy summer season in which more than a few hapless souls are likely to walk where they’re not supposed to walk and experience unfortunate/preventable run-ins with bears, has fallen to the wayside.
"By law, Parks Canada... actually have to put nature first and they haven't been," Syslak tells AFP. "Too many people too fast without conservation as the priority — it's a real risk for these parks."
Certainly not lacking in the natural beauty department, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia is generally less congested than some of its more famous Parks Canada-managed counterparts. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis/flickr)
Chasing tourism dollars to fund conservation efforts: A double-edged sword
Greg Danchuck is a tourism manager with Parks Canada who oversees Banff National Park, which is located high in the Canadian Rockies and is Canada’s oldest, most beloved and also most tourist-stuffed national park. He acknowledges the busy summer ahead while offering reassurance that conservation efforts have not become any less of a priority as a result.
"We have a responsibility to do both, to preserve nature and provide opportunities for people to visit," says Danchuk, noting that campsite reservations at Banff have more than doubled compared to the same time last year.
"Tourism and conservation should lie hand in hand because people are coming to these areas for their natural beauty and wildlife," argues Syslask. "We also have a responsibility to be stewards of these lands so that we have these animals and we keep these places in a good state for the future."
Edward Johnson, an ecology professor at the University of Calgary, notes the complexity of drawing people to far-flung national parks while bolstering conservation efforts at the same time. Parks need those tourism dollars to support conservation, even if those tourism dollars also might be indirectly working against conservation.
"The more people who want to come out and see natural areas, the more likely you're able to preserve more natural areas. It's a double-edged sword," he says.
In an article published by the Toronto Star in January, retired nature guide and author Ben Gadd mentions an uptick in vehicular traffic as being a specific concern as the summer nears: "Clearly the highway system in the mountain parks — it is going to be terrible next summer, all summer long,” says Gadd. “When you have that situation and animals trying to cross there are going to be more accidents, more animals killed.”
To keep on top of potential traffic issues, Parks Canada spokesperson Ed Jager tells the Star that the organization is tracking online orders of free park passes to glean a better sense of which specific parks may experience additional congestion. Jager also notes that the number of maintenance and cleanup personnel has been increased in preparation for larger crowds.
“We can’t actually love our parks to death — I think the death of our parks is when nobody wants to come to them and when they don’t care about them anymore,” Jager says. “We would much rather be in this place than in a place where nobody is showing up.”
For those still intent on showing up to Canada’s national parks during the sesquicentennial, crowds be damned, the Guardian has a solid list of lesser-known Parks Canada-managed gems that should (no guarantees, obviously) be slightly more free-ish of the selfie stick-wielding masses this summer. Grasslands National Park, home to one of Canada's largest and darkest dark sky preserves, in Saskatchewan; Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park, a rugged Rocky Mountain getaway that’s generally less trafficked than neighboring Banff and Jasper National Parks; and Nova Scotia’s majestic Cape Breton Highlands National Park all make the cut.
And for those who really want to avoid the crowds while admiring Canada's natural splendor, there's always Auyuittuq National Park, a remote former preserve that showcases the vast Arctic wilderness of Nunavut, Canada's newest, largest and northernmost territory.