January may look different but experts say Canada’s winter tourism industry & our identity tied to it are adaptable
Winterlude, the winter festival held jointly by the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, is one of the capital region’s biggest tourist draws. The image of Canada, a vast northern land of snow and ice, is embedded in the festival’s broad appeal as visitors enjoy the cold temperatures and snow, marvelling at the intricate ice sculptures, sliding down the slopes, skating and much more.
Perhaps the biggest draw of the festival is the Rideau Canal Skateway, the largest outdoor skating trail in the world, spanning almost eight kilometres. People from across the country and beyond join to celebrate this piece of Canadiana, gathered with friends and family, gliding over the frozen canal in winterly bliss.
But for anyone planning to visit Winterlude last year, disappointment set in. For the first time in the Rideau Canal Skateway’s 53 year history, it did not open all season.
"Despite our best efforts, the weather got the best of us for the first time in our history," the National Capital Commission, responsible for the skateway, announced on Twitter in February. "You’re disappointed. We’re disappointed."
Mild temperatures and freeze-thaw cycles made skating impossible.
According to the National Capital Commission (NCC), the typical number of skating days per year is 50, and the longest season was 95 days in the 1971-1972 season. But since the early ‘2000s, the skating season has been getting progressively shorter. In the first 26 seasons of the Skateway’s existence, the median opening date was December 27. In the 26 years since the 1995-1996 season, the median opening date has been January 10. A risk assessment undertaken in 2021 found that over the next few decades, the skating season could be shorter than 40 days 50 percent of the time, and the years of December openings are likely a thing of the past.
The loss of Canadian iconography—the threatened polar bear and dwindling caribou, for example—is a complex to comprehend reality. The loss of activities that are central to this iconography, and winter itself, is easier to contemplate. The feeling of this disappearing identity can create a sense similar to a spiritual void, in a country whose climate and geography are so closely connected to the way many Canadians see themselves.
The slow start to this winter season across much of Ontario is an eerie reminder of the disappointment from last year’s winter season. Across the GTA, temperatures hit 8 degrees Celsius on Christmas Day. In Peterborough and across Kawartha Lakes, there is an average of 9.5 centimetres of snow accumulated by the end of December. This year the grass was green for New Year’s.
Warm weather has even turned the love of winter activities deadly this season. Just before the new year, two Ottawa teens were pronounced dead after falling through the ice on the Rideau River just north of Manotick. Two others who were able to crawl their way to shore, had tried to go skating on the frail ice which was too thin to support their weight.
According to some Ontario tour guides, ice fishing can’t happen unless enthusiasts travel farther north where it’s safe.
(Rachel Morgan/The Pointer)
Winter activities have long been ingrained in our Canadian identity. According to a 2013 poll by Ipsos Reid, 92 percent of Canadian parents believed skating is a skill all children should have and 71 percent of parents identified their children as skaters. According to the Canadian Ski Council, 14.2 percent of Canadians above the age of 12 participate in skiing and snowboarding regularly. Other popular winter activities include cross country skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing.
“Oftentimes, when we think about tourism, it's the economic benefits that rise to the top. And while that's certainly true, it's billions of dollars for the Canadian economy, it is really part of our Canadian culture and our Canadian identity,” Michelle Rutty, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo and a Canada Research Chair in Tourism, Environment and Sustainability, told The Pointer. “And we tie that to white landscapes and snow mountains.”
You would be hard pressed to find a municipality that doesn’t have winter outdoor ice rinks for residents. Think of Gage Park in Brampton, the centre of downtown where skating for recreation and leisure is tied with the cultural history of the City — countless concerts and events are held at the park year round, and many recent immigrants have enjoyed learning how to skate as a sort of Canadian right of passage.
Newcomers in Mississauga’s Malton burrough even pushed back against the loss of outdoor skating rinks (due to demographic shifts) making a shinny hockey program geared to families who had never played the sport wildly popular. Mild winters, however, could prove to be even harder to overcome than demographic changes, as Canadians of all backgrounds who embrace a more northern way of life are left with fewer options to enjoy the season around this time of year.
Data published by the Sports Information Research Council predicts that if emissions continue along the current path, by the end of the 21st century, the skating season in Toronto could decrease from 61 days to 40. Similar realities would be seen in other large cities like Montreal and Calgary.
The impacts vary greatly depending on the vulnerability of the activity. Skating for example, can use refrigeration technology to keep ice frozen in less than ideal temperatures on rinks, but ice hockey on ponds will become a safety risk. Other activities like snowmobiling and cross-country skiing require thousands of kilometres of trails covered in snow.
“The ones that are essentially going to be most vulnerable are those that have the least ability to adapt. So when I mean adapt, it's things where they don't have the ability to produce snow or to produce refrigerated ice surfaces,” Rutty said. “Using this winter as an example, there still are ski resorts that are actively open even though temperatures are well above zero.”
While more modest than some resorts in Quebec, British Columbia or the northeastern United States, ski resorts like Hockley Valley in Mono, Snow Valley in Barrie and Blue Mountain in Collingwood, attract thousands of winter enthusiasts each year from across the province.
Recent studies have evaluated the impact climate change and warmer winters will have on the ski industry. Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo whose research has focussed on the impacts climate change will have on tourism, found there are two climate scenarios that could impact the ski industry in the coming decades, with very different outcomes.
In a high emissions scenario, it is predicted that by the 2070s and 2080s, many ski resorts in Ontario and some in Quebec will be forced to close as winters will be too short to sustain them. Currently, many resorts rely on snowmaking to supply enough base layer cover to sustain the ski season, but this process has its own impacts on the environment. A joint study by Scott, another researcher from the University of Waterloo and a researcher from the University of Innsbruck in Austria found Canada currently uses 478,000 megawatts of electricity (with over 130,000 tonnes of associated carbon emissions) and 43.4 million cubic metres of water to produce over 42 million cubic metres of technical snow. The stress of this on the environment will only increase as the researchers predict demand for snowmaking across the country will increase 55 to 97 percent depending on whether we follow a low or high emissions scenario. As the required amount of snow increases, so will the cost. Current estimates suggest per inch of technical snow, costs range from $200 to $1,000. These costs, as well as the costs of electricity, will rise exponentially as the climate continues to warm.
Rutty says investments in these adaptation technologies could prove to be beneficial for some players in the tourism and recreation space.
“There tends to be this media portrayal that it's really unsustainable. But the reality is, for example, what your energy source is. Are you using a clean grid? So in Ontario, and in Quebec it is actually quite clean to make snow, because our grids are clean,” Rutty explained. “And while snowmaking requires a lot of water to make it, it doesn't disappear. It just goes on to the mountain and then will run back into reservoirs that most ski resorts now have. And we're even seeing that some of those reservoirs a ski resort has to produce snow have been used, for example, out West during the fire season.”
All things considered, Rutty said the environmental impacts of producing snow are not comparable to emissions from long term travel. A PhD dissertation from a student at the University of Waterloo concluded that only 65 people would have to fly round trip from Montreal to Vancouver (to visit Whistler) to produce the equivalent emissions to the entirety of snowmaking in the province of Quebec. It is much more environmentally friendly for local resorts to produce technical snow than for thousands of people to travel greater distances for the same experience.
“To be a sustainable traveler or to have the least environmental impact, Local travel is your best route to take,” she said.
Ski resorts across Canada are popular destinations for both domestic and international tourists but climate change could dramatically alter the industry.
In Ontario, sports tourism, which includes winter sports like skiing and skating, generates a significant amount of economic activity. In 2019, sports tourism in the province generated $2.5 billion in spending for domestic and international visitors. This includes spectators from events like the Pan Am Games, Special Olympics and Grey Cup, and participatory tourism. According to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Ontario attracts 33 percent of all sport visitors to Canada.
Canada is in a unique position because its tourism does not have as long of an off season. The warm summers and cool winters provide ample opportunity for capitalizing on both shifts for vastly different types of tourism. While the City of Barrie estimates this year that it alone will lose $10 million from a lack of winter tourism, Rutty said that trends show these losses may be temporary until business can adapt to the changes.
“The good news is that tourists and recreationists are really resilient, we don't want to give up on our culture, on our sport, on what we love to do in the winter,” she said.
She used the example of snowmobilers and skiers. While the season to participate in these activities is getting shorter, she said evidence suggests people will partake in the activity the same amount of total times, over a shorter period.
“We're not, as of yet, seeing massive shifts in terms of demand or how people are participating in the sport.”
Rutty said some larger businesses, like ski resorts, are also beginning to diversify their offerings to provide services that are less weather dependent. For example, many larger ski resorts also offer fully fledged spa experiences that have become, in their own right, destinations in and of themselves. Others, like Hockley Valley, are paired with golf courses to provide unique experiences regardless of climatic conditions.
The downside is that small ‘ma and pa’ businesses may not be able to invest in the kinds of adaptation technologies necessary to keep winter tourism resorts afloat, resulting in a contraction of the market. This is something that Rutty said researchers are starting to see happen right here in Ontario.
As for the Canadian identity aspect, Rutty believes that is also adaptable.
“I think it's more so we just need to understand it's shifting. It's not that it's disappearing,” she said.
As the climate continues to change and the industry tries new ways of adapting, individuals and generations will share their own experiences that become a part of their personal identity.
“How I think of remembering, my childhood winter is probably going to actually be very different than perhaps how my son remembers his. And then obviously, as more generations pass, that identity might shift,” Rutty said. “So I think it's an evolution as opposed to thinking of it as something that's stopping and being lost.”
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