Canada's National Parks Are Overflowing With Visitors

CC BY 2.0. Alan & Flora Botting -- The Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park, Canada

Concerned citizens want Parks Canada to consider visitor quotas.

Canada's national parks in the Rocky Mountains live up to their reputation. They're as stunning as they're imagined to be, with magnificent rocky crags towering above lakes of liquid turquoise. That, however, is something of a problem. Because of their tremendous appeal, the number of tourists flocking to Banff, Jasper, and Waterton National Parks has reached overwhelming proportions. Parking lots are overflowing, hiking paths are crowded, and the entire experience of visiting these parks is not nearly as fun as it should be, nor is it good for the park. As Leyland Cecco writes in The Guardian,

"With the increased foot traffic comes more wear on the trail systems, more frequent encounters with wildlife, more trampling of delicate ground and more garbage."
I experienced (and contributed to) congestion at Moraine Lake in August 2016 when I spent two weeks camping in the Rockies with my family. After visiting Lake Louise early one morning, we couldn't get onto nearby Moraine Lake Road because the cars were lined up for several kilometres, awaiting entry. We returned the following week and managed to get in, but I suspect we were successful only because it was a cold, wet day; even there were crowds o
Lake Louise with crowd of people

© K Martinko -- A view of Lake Louise, with a crowd of people off to the side

Parks Canada has been working to attract visitors in recent years through advertising and development, but critics say the efforts have gone too far. Peter Zimmerman of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is calling on Parks Canada to consider implementing visitor quotas that are focused on key sensitive areas, such as Moraine Lake. Park officials are trying to reduce congestion by encouraging the use of shuttles and advising visitors about peak busy times, but the vast majority of people still come in private vehicles.

Quotas have been introduced at a number of popular tourist sites around the world, such as the Alhambra in Spain, Cinque Terre in Italy, and the Forbidden City in Beijing. Other places restrict the total number of people at any given time, such as 3,000 in the Colosseum, 15-minute admissions to Pompeii, and only 24 people allowed at a time to view Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting. The stunning Grotto at Bruce Peninsula National Park, close to where I live, now has a four-hour parking permit that must be purchased in advance, and there are a limited number.

Indian Head Cove, Bruce Peninsula

© K Martinko -- A typical weekday in summer at the Grotto on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario

Quotas can be problematic because they get snatched up immediately by online watchers, but I wonder if this could be solved by allocating certain percentages of the passes to local residents, citizens of the country in which a site is located, and foreign visitors, to be sure that everyone gets a fair shot.

One thing that's for sure, focusing on developing Canada's national parks will not improve the situation -- if 'developing' means building more tourist attractions. If anything, it makes it easier for tourists to come, observe, and leave, participating in the industrial-style tourism that does so much harm to the planet.

There is an impressive number of fancy activities one can do in Banff and Jasper without setting foot on the ground, such as the Glacier Skywalk, numerous gondola car rides, the Jasper SkyTram, and ice explorer vehicles traversing the (melting) Athabasca Glacier. One might argue that these tourist attractions lessen environmental impact by keeping people contained, and they are obviously beneficial to visitors with limited mobility, but I do think they contribute to the commercialization of a region that should not be commercialized.

Another example is Sunshine ski resort's recent request to expand within Banff National Park. It wants to build a parkade to accommodate an additional 2,500 visitors per day, but as the Calgary Sun reports, this makes little sense:

"It would look like you're going into a major airport. It's only needed for about 50 days a year, so it would sit empty for over 310 days of the year. The parkade isn't the right solution because it would block the flow of wildlife."

Fighting the surge in tourism may feel at odds with a desire for incessant growth, but I believe it's necessary if we hope to preserve national parks for future generations. One thing is for sure: we don't want Canada's national parks to become like Maya Bay, the famous Thai beach that has just been closed indefinitely due to environmental damage caused by excessive tourism.

Quotas are just one part of that fight, but visitors should be encouraged to go in the off-season and to other places. (In fact, the highlight of my Rockies trip was visiting Kootenay National Park, which felt empty compared to Banff.) In Canada we are incredibly lucky to have easy access to nature all around. You don't have to go far to get into the wilderness.

Last word goes to Zimmerman:

“I know that Parks Canada is preserving the areas so that my kids can go, and their kids can go. But if you think of the parks and ecosystem as an orchestra, the more people you jam into the theatre, at some point, you overwhelm the musicians and you won’t hear the music.”