Wildfire smoke, air quality new variables for Ottawa tourism

wildfire air quality tourism
Ottawa's air quality ranked 10+, very high risk, on Tuesday and Wednesday. Photo taken Tuesday by Kelly Buell

Small businesses and tourism operators in Ottawa are seeing visitors cancel tours and avoid sightseeing around the city amid lingering clouds of smoke and poor air quality from wildfires burning in Ontario and Quebec. 

Glen Shackleton, owner of Ottawa’s Haunted Walks Inc. tour agency, said he is cancelling or adjusting tour schedules during “one of the busiest weeks of the year.”

Haunted Walks is facing a number of cancellations, said Shackleton, and he has had to “get creative” with temporary solutions, including conducting tours mostly indoors.

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“We’ve also had to cancel some tours at higher-risk periods ourselves for safety reasons,” he added.

While he is managing the same difficult decisions at his Kingston and Toronto locations, where the air quality has been equally poor if not worse than in the nation’s capital, Shackleton said Ottawa is in a “unique” predicament.

“These challenges come on the heels of three years of sustained difficult and disruptive situations business owners have had to cope with, from the convoy to the pandemic,” he explained. “I don’t think there is a small business owner in Ottawa who is not feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by this.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Air Quality Ontario rated the air quality in Ottawa as very high risk, scoring Ottawa’s downtown at 10+ on the Forecast Air Quality Health Index. Rates improved Thursday, with a “low risk” rating by midday, but the air remained hazy in parts of the city.

Ottawa Tourism said that while the air quality may impact what tourists may choose to do while visiting, it isn’t likely to have an immediate effect on upcoming travel plans.

“Travel that is happening now has likely been booked prior to the air quality changing, whether for leisure purposes, business events such as conferences and other business travel, tour groups, etcetera,” said Catherine Callary, vice-president of destination development with Ottawa Tourism. “We are fortunate in Ottawa to have numerous indoor activities for people to choose from when the climate outside is inclement.”

It’s more likely that day travel will be impacted, she said, though it’s unclear how.

“Day visitors are likely also experiencing the same climate conditions, being within a shorter driving distance, so plans to visit the nation’s capital could very well be delayed,” she said. “Or, the range of indoor experiences available in Ottawa may also be a draw as an escape from similar conditions within their communities.”

While the smoke might be putting a strain on his business, which involves outdoor walking tours through some of Ottawa’s most “haunted” historical sites, Shackleton says he thinks major weather and climate events are here to stay.

“Unfortunately, we are probably going to see more of this moving forward as the repercussions of climate change take its toll on everyone, including our local economy,” he said. “As an eco-friendly business, we hope this helps more folks come to understand how the repercussions of our choices can come home to roost if we continue to do so little about it as a community and country.”

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