Businesses in a popular Saskatchewan lake resort believe a noticeable decrease in campers is the result of a glitch in the provincial government’s online booking system.
Kimball Lake, located north of Meadow Lake in the Meadow Lake Provincial Park, is one of the busiest lakes in Saskatchewan and was even rated one of the top 10 beaches in Canada according to Sharon Hofer, owner of the Kimball Lake general store.
She said on a typical summer, all 208 campsites are completely full from June 25 to Aug. 15. Since early July, the only two days that Kimball Lake filled up was Aug. 1 and 2. But Hofer said several families were told throughout the summer that the campground was full when they tried to book through the reserve-a-site system.
Hofer recalls one couple’s story of trying to book for two weeks but being told they could only book for one. They tried to extend their stay while at the provincial park, but were again told the sites were full.
“Meanwhile when they pulled out to leave, there was 38 empty sites. And they were so disappointed,” she said.
When asked if those 38 spots could have been filled the next day by a fresh batch of campers, Hofer said that would only happen in June. She said in another case, a family was told they couldn’t get an electric campsite even though around 30 electric sites were empty the entire time they were at the lake.
The store owner, who has been at Kimball Lake for 18 years, has been counting the amount of empty campsites throughout the summer, which range from 15 to 65 on any given day.
“July 5, to have 65 empty sites? That is unheard of for Kimball Lake.”
Hofer said even the local park manager has told her that numbers have dropped, and that the nearby Makwa Lake Provincial Park was experiencing a similar decline in campers.
Mary-Anne Wihak, director of visitor experiences for Saskatchewan parks, admits there has been a two per cent decrease in numbers at Kimball Lake compared to last year. But she believes the forest fires that plagued much of northern Saskatchewan were a factor in the number of empty campsites.
“We heard from a number of campers who were concerned either about the air quality, at the same time there was also a fire ban on in all of the northern parks. Many of them did choose to cancel,” Wihak said.
Hofer agrees that the forest fire smoke and fire ban may have played a role in the first two weeks of July. But that doesn’t explain why the park had 46 empty sites on Aug. 6, weeks after the fire ban and smoke had lifted, she said.
“Whether it be in regards to ‘I couldn’t stay, I wanted electric and I couldn’t get that,’ everybody has been experiencing a different problem. But all the problem’s root seems to be this online booking system,” Hofer said.
However, she said a government official with the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport who she spoke with would not acknowledge a potential issue with the website. Wihak said while they are not aware of any recent technical glitches in the system, it could come down to the way people use their site.
When booking, users can choose to search for campsites on a calendar, a map or a list. She said depending on what view the person is using, if someone searches for a certain number of dates and one of those dates is booked for every site, then it would show up as unavailable for the entire date range.
“So it isn’t that there isn’t any sites available, it’s that the actual search criteria that they’ve put in which is ‘I want to stay in one site for six nights’ and it could be quite true that there isn’t any availability.”
Wihak said if campers use the calendar view, they would see that there are in fact other campsites available, although it would require them to move from one site to another. However, she admits more could be done to educate people on how to effectively use the reservation system.
But Hofer believes it should be on the government to make the website more user-friendly. In the meantime, she said the decrease in campers has caused a ripple-effect for the lake community, including less kids in swimming lessons and even a nearby stable having to pull out because of a lack of business.
“I’m admitting that this summer is done. But when there’s a problem, you need to acknowledge that problem and you need to figure out a way to fix it. We need to move forward,” she said.
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