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‘Nature should be free’: A $59 hiking pass ignites backlash at Blue Mountain

‘Nature should be free’: A $59 hiking pass ignites backlash at Blue Mountain
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TOWN OF THE BLUE MOUNTAINS—As Blue Mountain resort prepares to re-open after COVID-19 closed its operations two months ago, its U.S.-based owner’s decision to start charging people to hike has ignited a local backlash and accusations of pandemic price gouging.

Starting June 6, anyone wanting to use Blue’s hiking trails will have to buy an “Explore Pass” at $59 for adults, $49 for young adults, $39 for youth and $19 for children four and under. The passes also provide access to gondola service. Similar to a winter season ski pass, hikers must display passes while on the trails; ticket checkers at the trailheads will kick trespassers off the property.

Blue Mountain, which has evolved from an alpine ski resort into a four-season destination on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, says the move was necessary to prevent and “manage the flow of people” along with helping to cover the cost of trail maintenance.

But critics believe the owner, Alterra Mountain Company, is using the pandemic as an excuse to make people pay for an activity that should be free. While the Colorado-based company owns 15 North American ski resorts, including Quebec’s Mount Tremblant, it appears only Blue Mountain hikers will have to pay.

Mackenzie Robinson, 23, a Collingwood resident who has hiked Blue’s hills since she was 16, started an online petition last week in protest. In just a few days it collected more than 1,100 signatures and many angry comments: “Nature should be free”; “we should not be charged as taxpayers to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings”; “very bad for Blue Mountain image”; and, “an opportunistic money grab during a national crisis. This will be remembered long after the pandemic has cleared.”

Robinson, who is in teachers’ college, said she was frustrated and upset by the change. “They’re telling us to get out, take walks with families, and now you want to put a price tag on it.” She also wonders how Blue will manage with hikers who enter the property using the Bruce Trail, largely open-access 900-kilometre footpath that stretches from Niagara to Tobermory and, for a small section, intersects with Blue Mountain’s vertical trails.

“How are they going to let people use the Bruce Trail, then charge everybody else to hike? It makes no sense.”

Bruce Trail Conservancy CEO Michael McDonald said discussions are underway with Blue Mountain, which “graciously allows the Bruce Trail Conservancy to cross their land.” He added: “I’m confident that we’re going to figure this out.” (The Bruce Trail is currently in a phased re-opening.)

Jessica Daliss, a mother of two children with disabilities who lives in Collingwood, a short distance from Blue Mountain, said local residents feel slapped in the face. “Two-hundred-and-fifty dollars a family to hike a trail that’s been free since I was a child under the guise of it being for social distancing,” she said.

“I understand large businesses are struggling right now, but this was not the time to impose higher fees and less access to greenspace in our community.”

“It’s a very big change,” acknowledged Blue Mountain spokeswoman Tara Lovell. The move, she said, is part of the resort’s plan to comply with government and public health protocols. The trail network is expanding to 30-kilometres by incorporating some trails used for downhill mountain biking, a revenue generator cancelled for at least this summer season over the virus.

During the pandemic, Blue Mountain resort, like other businesses, are required to impose capacity limits on their properties, which, Lovell said, is why the owner wants to ensure paying guests are given priority to hike.

“There will be fewer people at Blue Mountain resort this summer, we’re taking steps to do that,” she said. The hiking fees, however, will remain after the pandemic era ends. (Winter season passholders have automatic trail access, and guests lodging in one of Blue’s hotels will receive a “significant” discount, she said.)

Derek Crawford, who lives in Collingwood and has two children, aged seven and 11, and a new baby on the way, called the decision shortsighted because a large part of the allure of hiking at Blue is the resort’s village, filled with restaurants and shops.

“So you could get outside and be active, and there’s somewhere to go right after without having to hop in your car, drive, and get out again.” He and his family will go elsewhere now, “where it’s free.”

Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, said in an interview that many tourism business owners are looking at “lifelines” for how to survive the pandemic.

Although Blue Mountain is an association member, Potter spoke about the issue generally. The tourism and attraction sectors are “very people-oriented experiences,” she said, adding the industry is having to “pivot” to ensure they comply with COVID-19 protocols — and stay in business.

For example, the CN Tower, Toronto Zoo, and the meeting and convention industry are all looking at ways to adapt and manage crowds in these challenging times, she said.

“Is it time-ticketed entry? Is it lines on the floor at a trade show, so you can only move in one direction? All those things are being considered and factored and into the new business models across all the different sectors of the tourism industry.”

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And that, she says, comes at a cost.

So too does alienating a local community, said Robinson, who started the petition and has no plans to buy a hiking pass.
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