After a few days in Banff we were, for all practical purposes, tired of it, so we decided to watch the new Thor movie. At one point, the action busses us to New Asgard – home to the refugees from the titular god’s homeworld – which director Taika Waititi hilariously portrays as one of those quaint little tourist destinations where people flock to pay top dollar for a burlesque theme park with what they imagine the city to be, complete with cruise ships, souvenir vendors and corporate sponsorships.
It’s just like Banff, I thought as the camera wandered through this tourist trap parody. Suddenly my boyfriend leaned close to my ear.
“It’s Banff,” she whispered.
Then a few rows ahead of us moaned, “It’s so Banff.”
Later when we had dinner (hamburger $22, add fries for another $8) our server asked if we were from the area. I started to explain that I had come to write about it, and he rolled his eyes.
“Please tell me you’re not one of those travel writers who’s going to tell everyone how great Banff is and that everyone should come here.”
I have traveled to and written about many places, but I had never heard of it before.
Tucked away in the mountains about 90 minutes northwest of Calgary, the scenery of Banff National Park is about as stunning as it gets. Long a popular destination among skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts, it has become one of Canada’s hottest tourist attractions, drawing around 4 million people each year.
“Have you seen Banff?” asked another server in the nearby – and slightly less touristy – town of Canmore when I noticed how busy all the restaurants were. “You can’t even walk down the streets on the weekend.”
If the town of Banff itself is overcrowded, the nearby natural wonders are overrun. I visited in July and every scenic overlook I passed was jammed, as was every campsite. There was a steady stream of cars driving up the lovely Icefields Parkway to see the glacier which is rapidly dripping away due to the intense heat. And if you want to see the region’s most famous attraction—Lake Louise—you’ll either have to arrive before sunrise to get parking or reserve a seat on the city shuttle months in advance. It is basically impossible to see it in motion.
I got a hint of the crowds to come when I first flew into Canada. While going through passport control the customs agent asked about our plans and we told him we were going to Banff.
“Do you have reservations?” he asked with the kind of skepticism you’d expect from the host of an upscale restaurant. When we said we just planned to wing it, he shook his head. “Good luck with that. Summer reservations open early in May, and there are people who set their alarms so they wake up in time to book as soon as they can. Otherwise, usually everything gets booked immediately…”
At the time I brushed this off as exaggeration, but now I understood what he meant.
As the server who brought the $30 hamburger and fries told me, the rush of visitors has been overwhelming in the wake of the pandemics, as most businesses are still struggling to re-staff. The local service industry is drowning under a flood of tourists, and while a number of service workers I spoke to admitted that the influx of money is necessary after the economic devastation of COVID, the atmosphere of stress is palpable. Dinner in Banff is a chaotic food frenzy where determined restaurant workers toss out their mate as fast as the sharks will devour it. All the establishments are filled to the brim, and those who are late to enter the gastronomic fray are doomed to long waits or to wandering the street with restless hunger in search of a place with an open table.
All this hustle and bustle makes it increasingly difficult to minimize damage to the natural areas around Banff, which has been the mission of the regional conservation group Bow Valley Naturalists for over 50 years. When I asked BVN spokesperson Reg Bunyan about the explosion of tourism, he corrected me.
“I’m not sure the right word is ‘explosive’ tourism. Banff’s visitation has been growing consistently for years rather than ‘exploding’,” he explained. “I think the idea of a visitor explosion stems from the perception that we have now reached – or we are now exceeding – peak visitor capacity thresholds and the impacts are ultimately too obvious to ignore. These include impacts on community culture, degraded or overwhelmed visitor facilities or experiences, and ecological impacts on the surrounding environment.
I can attest firsthand to that breakdown. If you love the outdoors, Banff is a frustrating experience. Although full of vistas and natural possibilities that would otherwise be awe-inspiring, it’s hard to appreciate awe when you’re forced to elbow your way through a parking lot crowded with busload after busload of tourists to see a waterfall that’s partially hidden by a number of pilgrims on the voracious quest to feed Gram.
At the same time, who am I to say who should or shouldn’t be out in nature? (Or at least as close to nature as any place with a Lululemon store can be…) They have as much right to be there as I – the pretentious outdoorsman – do. Am I not to some extent as much a part of the problem as everyone else?
“It’s a complex problem,” Bunyan admits, “and while there’s probably no simple solution, the first step—as with any problem—is a recognition that it’s a visitor problem and that the park doesn’t have an infinite capacity for tourism growth. Banff is in the unfortunate position of being the primary tourism driver in Alberta and the powerhouse of Parks Canada’s own internal revenue generation. So even a simple acknowledgment of the question of limits to tourism growth is hindered by various levels of government policy and sections of business. We cannot proceed with a series of solutions before there is an acknowledgment of the problem.”
So let’s face it: There is a problem. It is the same problem encountered in Yellowstone and Yosemite, on the beaches of Tulum and the islands of Thailand. Humanity’s lack of natural stewardship—of outright restraint with respect to the most photogenic outdoor spaces—destroys them, renders them intolerable, and increases the cost of visiting them to the point where nature experiences are increasingly relegated to the few who can afford them.
So what is the solution?
“Ultimately, the agency responsible for managing national parks has to drive the issue,” Bunyan says. “It’s Parks Canada. The challenge is that the concept of ‘people who visit national parks will be far more likely to support national parks’ is deeply embedded in Parks Canada’s corporate culture, making it very difficult for them to put the brakes on visiting. And although there is probably a grain of truth in the concept, you don’t have to be a philosophy major to see the flaws in that argument.”
Parks Canada did not return a request for comment on any plans to curb the crowds.
On the last day before leaving Banff, I stopped at the only laundromat in town to freshen up my duds for the road. It was empty when I arrived just after they opened, but by 10 the place was a madhouse. At one point an argument broke out between two customers over a mistake one had made with a machine that would delay the other by half an hour.
“This means,” the uncomfortable woman almost sobbed, “I’m going to miss the shuttle to Lake Louise. I ordered the seat months since.”
That, in a nutshell, is Banff: crowded with people who have invested heavily to be there, only to discover upon arrival that it’s too busy to actually do—let alone enjoy—anything.
During the two weeks I was in the area, I never saw Lake Louise. As it turned out, my favorite experience came well outside the park as I camped along a random logging road where locals go to whiz around on ATVs. There I watched as a huge blonde bear grazed with her cub.
It was very peaceful, and very beautiful.