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How do we lure tourists back after the wildfires?

For the most part, the damage has been done.

Tourists who cancelled their trips to the Okanagan because of the wildfires are unlikely to just magically show up now, even if the travel ban has been lifted and the sun is shining.

Wildfires and smoke slammed the Central Okanagan for six days prompting a provincial travel ban to the Okanagan to Sept. 4.

Rightly so, tourists quickly abandoned their plans to come to the Okanagan.

After all, they wanted to stay out of the way of fires and firefighters and who wants a smoke-veiled holiday in a place where almost everything is closed anyway?

All of a sudden thought, overnight rain banished the smoke, the sun is out, the sky is blue and the province has lifted the travel ban allowing tourists to once again come to the Okanagan.

Also, all the hotel rooms being held for evacuees and firefighters never filled up because most evacuees ended up staying with friends or relatives, slept in their RVs or fled the region.

</who>Tourism officials want to see a return to normal to fill up beaches like this one in Kelowna.

But, will tourists actually return now?

"The reality is people have cancelled their trips to the Okanagan and made other plans," said Ellen Walker-Matthews, CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA).

"We're unlikely to get them back this summer. Now, we have to get ready for a strong fall."

Walker-Matthews said the most effective tactic now is awareness.

"We have to let everyone know the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the travel restrictions order has been lifted," she said.

"Absolutely, 100%, we need to tell the world we are fully open again and operational and ready, willing and able to welcome tourists."

</who>Ellen Walker-Matthews is the CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association.

TOTA is urging all community destination marketing organizations in the region, like Tourism Kelowna, Tourism Kamloops, Visit Penticton and Tourism Vernon, to use marketing dollars to scream the message that the region is safe and open to tourism.

TOTA is also lobbying Destination BC to spend as much as possible to get the message out too.

TOTA is also after the province to offer financial assistance to tourism businesses to offset losses due to the travel ban.

"We're still in the early hours of reopening, but everyone is on it and advocating for a full return of tourism," said Walker-Matthews.

The only place the travel ban remains is West Kelowna, which was hardest hit by the fires and is still doing fire assessments and dealing with water and road issues.

</who>Kara Triance is superintendent of the Kelowna RCMP.

Supt. Kara Triance of the Kelowna RCMP asked tourists to stay away from evacuated areas and fire-damaged areas, especially in West Kelowna.

"However, downtown Kelowna is open, businesses are open, people are welcome to return to business as usual," she said.

"We encourage people to enjoy the Okanagan in ways they typically do while respecting the affected areas."

Tourism is one of the region's top economic engines with four million visitors a year coming here to spend over $2 billion.

Looks like we'll lose that momentum this summer.

</who>Lyndie Hill is the owner of Hoodoo Adventures in Penticton.

"Unfortunately, the damage has been done," said Lyndie Hill, owner of Hoodoo Adventures in Penticton.

"There was a state of emergency, we understood the reasons for the travel ban. But that doesn't take away the fact that tourism businesses had all their bookings for the rest of the summer. Even if companies were able to give credits to those cancelling, it just pushes the problem further down the road because people with credits will take up space that now can't be sold next summer."

So what's the solution?

"All we can do is urge people to rebook their holiday as soon as possible, there's still some summer left and the fall is beautiful, too," said Hill.

"We have to tell people to pre-book, come back."

Because of cancellations, Hoodoo has lots of openings now for its cycling tours, shuttles to the Kettle Valley Railway to bike, rock climbing excursions and watercraft rentals.

Hill would like to see all of them booked again with the lifting of the travel ban and a return to normal.



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