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Great start to tourism season in Okanagan, but high gas prices may result in less spending

It was the first May long weekend since the 2019 Victoria Day weekend without any COVID-19-related restrictions.

“Long weekend was amazing,” said Jeff Blower, owner of Kelly O’Bryan’s Restaurant in downtown Kelowna. ” People are back.  It’s great. I haven’t seen that many people in two-and-a-half years.”

While the numbers haven’t yet been tabulated, Tourism Kelowna is touting this past May long weekend as one of its best.

“What we are hearing is it was probably one of the best weekends on record for tourism in the Okanagan,” said Lisanne Ballantyne.  “There’s definitely pent-up travel demand.”

At the Parlour Icecream shop, the long weekend was a record-breaking one.

“We’ve had our busiest long weekend since we opened in August 2017,” said supervisor Hailley Bamping.

Wineries across the Okanagan also reported strong numbers, including The View Winery.

“This May long weekend, Saturday, we saw numbers that we typically see in the middle of July and August in the regular season,” said Krista Pallos, hospitality and wine shop manager.

Pallos said with no COVID restrictions, groups coming in for wine tastings are getting larger.

“Last summer, we had restrictions of six people per tasting room,” Pallos said. “This year, we’re seeing bigger and bigger reservations or we’re seeing groups of 12 and 14 coming in.”

A restriction-free summer season is being welcome by tourism operators, including Ogopogo Parasail.

“Yeah, looking forward to getting back out there without the restrictions, ” said owner Luke Weller.

“Without the face masks and without sanitizing and all that sort of stuff, just getting back to normal operation.”

And while the elimination of restrictions may bring in more tourists, the high price of gas may impact how much they spend here.

“We don’t foresee the gas prices having a direct effect on our overall tourism number. We do about 2.2 million visitors a year,” Ballantyne said.

“What we are worried about is once they get here, are they going to have enough leftover money to spend on our retailers, out in restaurants? Maybe have that extra day in the hotel.”

In addition to high gas prices, the labour shortage is also a cause for concern, as there aren’t enough workers to serve all the tourists expected in the Okanagan this summer season.

“I hire about 50 new staff for the summer. I’m probably only halfway there right now,” Blower said.

According to the B.C. Restaurant Association, the industry is short about 30,000 employees.

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