I retired from a career with Parks Canada a few years ago, not long after signing off on a management plan that prescribed a 2 per cent annual increase in visitors to Banff. Local businesses were ecstatic that the new plan seemed finally to acknowledge tourism growth as a priority. They loved the prospect of overheated credit card machines. Environmental groups who have long fought overdevelopment in our national parks were outraged.
Parks Canada didn’t even have to try to meet the growth target. Tourism in Banff National Park alone grew by more than 30 per cent between 2010 and 2017.
As if that massive increase didn’t strain already overcrowded parks enough, the federal government made entry to all of our national parks free in 2017. Banff and Jasper—with their gate revenues erased—had to establish new temporary parking lots, rent buses to move people around, hire extra staff to direct traffic, and cope with a spike in wildlife conflicts from naive new visitors. A lot of Canadians simply avoided the mess.
People like simple ideas and sharp contrasts. That’s why, for most of our national parks’ 134-year history, media coverage has framed the core conundrum facing the parks as “balance.” It’s easier to think in binary terms about a simple conflict between use and protection than to dig deeper into why traffic jams—rather than the peaceful enjoyment of nature—increasingly define the park experience.
I had coffee with a former colleague the other day. She told me the discussion in the mountain national parks now is not how to grow tourism but how to cope with massive overcrowding. They are even asking the Walt Disney Company for ideas.
Here’s an idea: Do only what you’re mandated to do. The Canada National Parks Act establishes the core mandate for the places we consider most special. The dedication clause in that law has not changed since 1930 in spite of numerous other changes to the law that gives our parks their existence. That’s no accident; it defines what Canadians want their parks to be.
“The national parks of Canada are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment… and the parks shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
That clause makes no reference to tourism. Our national parks are dedicated only to Canadians—not to visitors from the US, Germany, Japan, Korea or Great Britain. Yet Canada flogs its parks to the world as tourism destinations. Politicians and parkocrats alike boast about their role in helping Canada’s balance of trade. Mass tourism may frivolously generate millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and create traffic gridlock in once-peaceful parks, but that’s okay because each tourist leaves a whack of foreign dollars behind—new dollars, compared to the recycled ones Canadians spend.
Parks Canada is today almost entirely captive to the tourism industry. Environmental groups warn against turning our national parks into versions of Disneyland.
The powerful influence wielded by tourism operators offers more evidence of how bad this mandate creep has become. When Rocky Mountains Park (now Banff) was first established, the government decided that the private sector should provide basic services—lodgings, food, recreational gear—to the Canadians who were expected to visit their new park. So, although national parks were meant to remain in the public domain, government made carefully limited provision for businesses to lease property and sell services that visitors would need. It was a pragmatic compromise meant to support—not supplant—the park’s core mandate.
Banff today has tattoo parlours, cannabis shops, high-end fashion outlets, bulk mail contractors and jewellery stores—hardly the kinds of essential services Canadians need in order to benefit from, be educated about and enjoy our natural heritage.
Passage of the Parks Canada Agency Act in 1998 helped lock in the shift from inviting Canadians to experience nature to making money from tourism. Meant to buffer Parks Canada from political interference, the new law also made the agency reliant on visitor fees. In effect, it codified a new, unofficial mandate: processing credit cards. Instead of riding the brake pedal on profit-hungry businesses, Parks Canada became one.
Parks Canada is today almost entirely captive to the tourism industry. Environmental groups warn against turning our national parks into versions of Disneyland. Ironic, then, that park bureaucrats are now consulting with Disney for advice on how to cope with mobs of foreign tourists.
The solution to this mess is not better tourism management; Canada’s national parks were never meant for tourists. If there even is a solution, it has to start with acknowledging that our national parks have no legal mandate for international tourism. They exist solely to help Canadians better know, love and protect our nation’s natural heritage.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.