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Canada’s heli-ski industry is bouncing back from crippling pandemic restrictions

By Ben Forrest | January 19, 2024

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 31 seconds.

In the steep, snow-covered mountains of western Canada, the heli-ski industry is enjoying a mammoth surge in pent-up demand, helping it rebound from pandemic restrictions that cratered its business at the height of the Covid-19 crisis.

The early stages of 2024 have brought snow and bone-chilling temperatures, creating favorable conditions for high-octane backcountry heli-adventures that attract thousands of visitors each year.

“We’ve had a great stretch through the first half of January,” said Erin Tierney, general manager at Whistler Heli Skiing, based in mainland British Columbia, about 75 miles north of Vancouver.

Whistler Heli Skiing partners with Whistler-based Blackcomb Helicopters to deliver services to an international clientele. Mitch Winton Photo

“So we’re fully operational, having great skiing, and looking forward to taking more people out in the mountains over the course of the next few months.”

Like many Canadian tourism outlets, Whistler Heli Skiing partners with helicopter operators to shuttle customers to and from adventure sites. In this case, the partner is Whistler-based Blackcomb Helicopters, which provides two Airbus H125 (AStar) and two Bell 212 aircraft, plus a rotating cast of experienced pilots.

“They are an exceptional bunch, with a huge demand placed on them,” said Tierney. “It truly is a partnership in the front seat, between the [ski] guide and the helicopter pilot. They’re incredibly skilled at what they do, and it’s a real honor to fly beside them.”

In 2020, during the first winter of the pandemic, the industry lost about 30 percent of its operating days and largely shut down for the normally-busy month of March. The following season, the number of available “skier days” dropped about 86 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

A few operators, including Whistler Heli-Skiing, managed to run at limited capacity with local skiers on day trips, typically as part of a family group or a “bubble” of friends. Border closures prevented the industry’s core clientele — tourists from the United States and further abroad — from visiting.

As a result, operators faced “pretty substantial losses right across the board,” said Ross Cloutier, executive director of Helicat Canada, the industry association that represents the country’s helicopter and snowcat (land-based) skiing community.

About 90 percent of heli-skiers in Canada are visitors from the United States and further abroad. Great Canadian Heli-Skiing Photo

“Everybody survived, but took pretty big financial hits.”

Then, the comeback.

With the border open and physical distancing requirements relaxed, the 2022-23 season was a rousing success, with near-pre-pandemic operating levels. Similar numbers are expected this year.

“The demand is really strong,” said Cloutier. “The instant the borders were open, then the bookings started again … there’s room for growth and skier numbers, but we’ll see really strong demand this year, we’re pretty sure.”

Back to business

At Yukon Heliski, two leased Airbus H125 helicopters and a team of four pilots carry adventurers into the Alaska Coast mountains for private, carefully-curated, boutique-style ski experiences.

Business dropped 95 percent at the height of the pandemic, but has rebounded to within 18 percent of pre-covid levels, said owner Peter Wright.

“Covid changed things in a big way,” he said. “I think it might have put a little distaste in people’s brains from traveling in big crowds. I don’t know what happened, but we have noticed a definite change moving forward.”

The company is grappling with the rising cost of doing business — grocery, fuel and propane prices have skyrocketed —and Wright is reluctant to pass those costs along to customers.

Still, an epic winter in Canada’s North has resulted in huge snowpacks this year, which bodes well for the season ahead. In northern Canada, the heli-ski season begins around mid-February due to a lack of daylight earlier in the winter; southern operations are already in full swing.

“We’re really excited about getting started,” said Wright, adding he doesn’t expect a huge surge in business volume. “I’d like to keep it really small and not too stressful — not too busy.”

With the border open and physical distancing requirements relaxed, the 2022-23 season was a rousing success, with near-pre-pandemic operating levels. Mitch Winton Photo

Further south at Great Canadian Heli-Skiing in Golden, British Columbia — about halfway between the Revelstoke resort and Banff, Alberta — 2024 is shaping up to be another bounce-back year.

“We’re really fortunate to be in an area where we get some incredible snowfall,” said Janet Doyle, the company’s sales and marketing manager. “We’re in really good shape.”

The company has a contract with Silver King Helicopters for rotorcraft services, operating three Airbus H125s (a pair of B2s and one B3) for heli-ski clients. The B3 is a new addition, aimed at meeting rising demand.

“I think there’s definitely been a shift to more experience-driven purchases, for sure,” said Doyle. “And I think heliskiing is really at the pinnacle of that experience … We run faster programs of smaller groups with the AStars, so our program is well-suited to people who value their time.”

In general, there’s a healthy optimism among industry stakeholders for the season ahead.

“We’re really relieved,” said Ross Clouthier from Helicat Canada. “The operators, when they shut down, nobody knew for how long. If it had gone on for another year of border closures, we would see some business closures, I’m sure — sales, and that kind of thing.

“But we’re super-relieved that we’re back to full operating demand, for sure. It’s pretty exciting, actually.”

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