Tourism minister lukewarm on Calgary-Banff rail; aiming to double Alberta tourist economy by early 2030s

‘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,’ Tourism and Sport Minister Joseph Schow said

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Coming off a year that saw Alberta attempt to prevent its national parks from popping at the seams, the province is looking to double its tourism economy by the end of the decade.

But Tourism and Sport Minister Joseph Schow also noted skepticism at the concept of a Calgary-Banff rail link, which is currently sitting in the design phase and received $3 million this year for a feasibility study.

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The most recent data show tourists spent $10.7 billion in 2022, surging $600 million ahead of pre-pandemic numbers. With tourism in full swing, the province is targeting $20 billion in tourist spending, Schow said in a year-end interview.

“Our next step is to look into 2030, 2035, and . . . have our visitor economy spending $ 20 billion annually,” Schow said.

‘The parks are becoming very full,’ minister says, concerned over potential Calgary-Banff rail

On a potential Calgary-Banff rail connection, Schow said he’s concerned there’s little room to grow within parks to accommodate a new influx of travellers. Earlier this year, the province put $3 million toward a feasibility study after Liricon Capital proposed building a rail link between Calgary International Airport and Banff Train Station.

The link is estimated to cost $1.5 billion to build. Premier Danielle Smith wrote a letter in November 2022 to Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek expressing interest in extending the proposed airport railway to Banff.

“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.

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He added development within national parks is a steep challenge, which is a core concern as the province continues exploring options. Parks Canada oversees developments within park boundaries.

“Things like accommodations and finding new products is almost a no-go and, as a result of that, the parks are becoming very full. People are avoiding the parks in some instances because it’s hard to get in, it’s hard to do much once you’re there.”

Parks Canada decided in February to close Moraine Lake Road to personal vehicles — an explicit effort to limit the number of cars trying to access the small parking lot near Moraine Lake.

In early August, Parks Canada temporarily closed Lake Louise because traffic congestion was preventing emergency vehicles from entering the hamlet.

‘I want to make sure Alberta never gets that reputation’

The congestion within Alberta’s provincial and national parks has prompted the ministry to focus on developing tourism opportunities “around the province” to disperse crowds, Schow said.

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Joseph Schow, Minister of Tourism and Sport speaks at the MNP Community and Sports centre in Calgary on Tuesday, July 18, 2023.
Joseph Schow, Minister of Tourism and Sport. Photo by Heather Chapin /Special to Postmedia

But he also acknowledged the province’s mountains are “never going to be less popular.” He said he hopes locations such as Banff and Jasper build out more four-season resorts.

“If word got to international communities that, ‘Oh, I went to these areas and it was really hard to navigate’ — I want to make sure Alberta never gets that reputation.”

Schow cited Métis Crossing, an Indigenous cultural interpretive centre with a luxury hotel, camping and domes for Northern Lights viewing, as an example of attractions outside the parks that it’s focused on. The centre is 1.5 hours northeast of Edmonton and is the site of a $13-million solar project.

“This is the kind of stuff Travel Alberta has invested in, and we’ve felt international markets are very interested in, especially with the northern lights.”

BMO Centre expansion, finishing in early 2024, will ‘be huge’

Calgary is also continuing to see the tourism economy bounce back from the pandemic, with a handful of major milestones for the sector within sight.

Top of that list is the expanded BMO Centre, slated to open in 2023 and seen as the city’s stepping-stone to competing with Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal for convention capacity — though the area still lacks a major hotel near it. Schow said the BMO Centre will “be huge” for Alberta.

Calgary Stampede CEO Joel Cowley
Calgary Stampede CEO Joel Cowley speaks during a media tour of the BMO Centre expansion construction site on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

As of November, Calgary had also seen eight straight months of record numbers of hotel rooms being used, according to outgoing Calgary Tourism president and CEO Cindy Ady.

“I actually, in 20 years, haven’t seen numbers like this,” Ady said at the time, adding the tourism agency will release its 10-year strategy in the coming months.

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