A summer season without international tourists in Banff may be a bummer, but Raj Grover is still bullish about moving bud in Banff.
Two weeks ago, Grover’s High Tide Inc. opened Banff’s largest pot shop, a 2,600-square-foot Canna Cabana in the Sundance Mall on what he calls a solid hunch a Rocky Mountain high hasn’t gone up in smoke.
“Banff has a cannabis culture — with the mountains, cannabis fits right in,” said Grover, adding that between 80 and 90 per cent of customers in the new store are tourists.
The Calgarian points to a Canna Cabana store in the heart of Niagara Falls’ tourism district as a template for his expectations for Banff.
“Banff is our match to Niagara Falls . . . opening up in Niagara Falls paid huge dividends and Banff will be the same,” said Grover, though he noted the 4.2 million people that normally visit the mountain park each year is about a quarter the tourism volume of the Ontario city.
His store’s opening brings the total number of cannabis stores in the mountain mecca to four, with another in the wings.
But this summer’s tourist buzz has been partially muted by COVID-19’s disruption of international travel, while many of the foreign workers who normally flock to Banff returned to their homelands when the pandemic hit in the spring.
The hospitality industry says foreign tourists tend to spend considerably more and stay longer than domestic visitors.
This summer was the first since October 2018’s end to prohibition for the legal cannabis business to test the waters in Banff.
The town’s first pot shop didn’t open until Oct. 1, 2019, when Spiritleaf began welcoming customers at its Bear Street location.
“Business in Banff has definitely been more challenging, though we were fortunate we didn’t have to close (last spring) because cannabis was deemed essential,” store manager Kate Mitchell said of this summer.
Five cannabis stores in the town whose population is normally 8,000 could be nearing a saturation point, “but it won’t when we get back to international tourism,” said Mitchell.
That could take a while, as Ottawa on Friday extended its international travel ban to at least Sept. 30.
There’s a mystique and attraction to legalized cannabis among tourists from countries where prohibition still reigns, said Nathan Mison, chairman of the Alberta Cannabis Council.
While some tourism agencies in Alberta have given the potential benefits of cannabis tourism short shrift, Mison said it’s an attitude that needs to change.
“We’re going into a different economic world and anything that offers opportunity for economic diversification and growth has to be taken seriously,” he said.
Banff bud tender Daniel Nuttall, who hails from the U.K., said he’s seen his countrymen marvel at the legal access to a drug that’s still forbidden in their country.
“They love it . . . a lot of people from there go for that in Amsterdam,” said Nuttall, a staffer at Banff Cannabis that opened on Banff Avenue last November.
High Tides’ Grover said he’s confident a tourist trade that’ll inevitably storm back means there’s plenty of room for competition.
“Whitecourt has a population of 10,000 people and there are six stores there — and in Banff, we’re already seeing (visitor) numbers accelerate,” he said.
The key to retail cannabis tourism, he said, is to stock pot-related gear.
“They’re not just leaving with cannabis, they’re leaving with accessories,” he said.
A spokesman for the Town of Banff said there likely won’t be more than five cannabis stores there due to its small size and proximity limits to similar shops and youth-oriented amenities.