Tourism destinations brace for busy winter without usual supply of foreign workers

Stephane Prevost, a Banff restaurateur, poses in this handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

BANFF - Stephane Prevost managed to weather the staffing shortages at his restaurants in Banff, Alta., for most of the summer. But by early August, he had to close one day a week to give his workers a day off.

Later in August, Prevost said he closed his two restaurants as many as two days a week, with lunch service sometimes cancelled for the majority of the week, because there simply weren't enough workers.

As a hectic summer season comes to a close, Prevost is one of many business operators in destinations like Banff and Whistler, B.C., who are bracing for a busier winter season as international visitors return to Canada amid an ongoing staff shortage.

"Even pre-pandemic, the hospitality sector was always difficult to staff. Every single year the available pool of hospitality staff has been diminishing," said Prevost, chef and co-owner of Block Kitchen and Bar and Shoku Izakaya in Banff.

"The pandemic has made it even worse, and a lot of people left the business entirely."

He says his business has raised wages as much as possible without compromising cash flow, and other restaurants in town are doing the same. He's also tried to throw staff get-togethers to improve morale.

"It's about trying to strike the right balance as employers to foster a good culture for our staff," said Provost, who said his restaurants are bracing for a difficult winter season.

"We have to care about their health and well-being and support them as much as we can."

Business owners say the lack of international workers has been a particularly large burden. Canadian mountain towns have long relied on foreign workers using working holiday visas, a reciprocal scheme Canada has with other countries like the U.K. and Japan that allows young adults to easily obtain an extended visa for work and travel.

"The fact is we're not getting any inquiries or interest from staff who usually would be applying for jobs with working holiday visas," said Prevost.

Michel Dufresne, director of the Job Resource Centre in Banff and Canmore, said these visas have become more difficult to come by during the pandemic, and the uncertainty around COVID-19 has kept some people from moving to Canada as their own countries grapple with waves of the coronavirus.

At the centre of the issue is the lack of Australian workers, who face restrictions from their government about leaving their country, Dufresne said.

He said Australians are one of the largest groups of foreign workers in Banff, estimating they usually make up 30 per cent of staff at Banff's three ski resorts.

Ski villages like Sun Peaks, B.C., will face unique challenges this winter, as they seek enough staff to keep the resort and all its facilities operating.

Colin Brost, senior director of market development with Tourism Sun Peaks, said the ski resort limited ticket sales last year because of pandemic. It was mostly to safeguard against COVID-19, but also to ensure that guests could have a good experience despite lower staffing levels at the resort.

He pointed out resort facilities like ski schools often rely on foreign workers who travel between the Northern and Southern hemispheres as they chase winter.

"It is a struggle to attract staff across the board," Brost said.

"Accommodation is a critical issue is well. Sometimes somebody is able and wants to work in a place like Sun Peaks, but can they afford to live there, and is there affordable housing for them?"

Even as some workers may balk at travelling for work, tourism destinations expect many more to travel for pleasure.

"It's going to be kind of like when restaurants first reopened here, it got really busy real fast, but they didn't have the workers to call on to come back," said Dufresne, in Banff.

In British Columbia, Tourism Whistler said U.S. and international visitors account for roughly 60 per cent of travellers to the resort in a normal year.

As some restrictions return in the province due to COVID-19's fourth wave, the tourism board said it expects people to take a wait-and-see approach when they book for the winter season.

“In the same way that we anticipate more visitors to be coming again over the next year, we’re also hoping that we can attract back a lot of our international employees who come to Whistler on a working holiday visa to work and play," said Barrett Fisher, CEO and president of Tourism Whistler.

“Certainly that helps buoy our local workforce.”

Back in Banff, Prevost called on the government to reduce the barriers for international workers who are trying to extend their stays in the country.

Already, he's facing the loss of a dependable cook, who may be forced to leave once his visa expires.

"He's having difficulties with that, and clearly he's an ideal candidate with a good track record, and it's frustrating that he can't get a work visa," Prevost said.

"The government needs to promote and make it easier for foreign workers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2021.

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