Alberta's mountain towns beginning to shore up labour shortages, but housing new workers a challenge

Finding appropriate housing for new workers is an issue

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Acute housing shortages in Alberta’s mountain towns is a major hurdle as the province boosts efforts to attract workers and grow the tourism industry.

The province on Tuesday introduced the Alberta Advantage Immigration Program, targeting Alberta’s tourism and hospitality industry, that will nominate experienced temporary workers to gain permanent residency in Alberta. Workers must have worked in the sector for at least six months instead of the normal year-long wait, and must have a full-time, non-seasonal job offer to be eligible.

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Several municipalities in the Rockies welcomed the news but said it’s too early to say whether it will help shore up labour shortages in their local tourism sectors.

“It’s very difficult at this stage to quantify the impact that it will have,” said Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland — the only mayor the town has had. Since pandemic restrictions lifted over the past few years, “it’s been a struggle” to attract enough workers — specifically temporary foreign workers from New Zealand and Australia, who have been reticent to return in pre-COVID numbers.

But finding appropriate housing for new workers is an issue for the town, geographically limited by Parks Canada boundaries.

Jasper currently has a zero per cent residential vacancy rate.

“Homelessness in Jasper doesn’t quite look like homelessness in Calgary . . . here, people can find accommodation of some sort, but they’re living in densely packed congregate housing and methods of living that aren’t really appropriate,” Ireland said. He added Jasper has a handful of infill developments in the works.

A bird’s-eye view of the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park from the top of Whistler mountain. Getty

Banff is also constrained by its four-square-kilometre national park boundary: people must work in the town to be able to live there, and new workers are required to find housing before accepting a job in the town.

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The town has a 700 to 1,000 shortfall in housing spaces, said Sharon Oakley, manager of housing for the Town of Banff. Its vacancy rate is currently 0.3 per cent, she said, adding the prospect of receiving support from the federal government’s Housing Accelerator Fund has caught the local town council’s attention.

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Meanwhile, Canmore’s tourism agency said its temporary and seasonal workers finally returned in pre-pandemic numbers last summer, but its tourism industry had struggled until then. Rachel Ludwig, CEO of Tourism Canmore Kananaskis, said she’s unsure whether the new immigration stream will increase the number of workers coming to the town, which is notably outside national park boundaries.

The Job Resource Centre’s latest labour market review said the high cost of housing in the Bow Valley “has led to a substantial churn in the workforce, making it increasingly challenging for local businesses to attract and retain employees.”

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Housing is often the greatest deterrent for workers interested in moving to Canmore, Ludwig said. Living wage in Canmore is $38.80, the Alberta Living Wage Network reported in November.

“When someone comes or wants to come to town, we’ll interview them . . . and let them know that it could be a struggle to find housing,” Ludwig said. “When push comes to shove and they are unable to find housing opportunities, they might not even start, not even come to Canmore.”

Rows of houses in the Canadian Rockies of Canmore, Alberta, with spectacular view of Rundle Mountain in the background. Photo by ronniechua /Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alberta looking to grow tourism industry

Alberta is aiming to double its tourism economy to $20 billion in tourist spending by 2035, Tourism Minister Joseph Schow told Postmedia in December. After tourists spent $10.7 billion in Alberta in 2022, the province upped that number on Wednesday to $25 billion, saying it is increasing focus on attractions located outside its popular national parks.

“We would consider (the parks) to be the crown jewel of Alberta. But they’re very full, and there isn’t a lot of room for growth in the parks,” Schow said in December.

On Tuesday, Schow said the province is “working on a solution,” to the housing shortage.

“One of the main issues that continues to come up is staff accommodation. It’s not unique to (Jasper) . . . but it’s crucial to the success of the industry.”

The province announced on Wednesday vague plans to grow its tourism economy, saying it’s focusing on “both Alberta’s well-known travel destinations and destinations that are still largely under-discovered and underexplored.”

The province did not announce any new funding initiatives related to the announcement.

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