As COVID-19 restrictions begin to loosen, the Sea to Sky Gondola has announced it is reopening on May 22 for annual passholders and their guests.
It’s the second time in less than a year the gondola has had to close and reopen. Before shutting down due to the pandemic, the popular tourist attraction had to stop operations after a saboteur cut the cable that held its cabins. It had reopened on Valentine’s Day this year, but shut again once COVID-19 began to sweep the nation.
May 22 marks the first part of a two-phased reopening.
Kirby Brown, general manager of the gondola, says he feels an element of "relief and anticipation all at once," about re-opening once again.
"I know we have done a really good job on the protocols and everything else, to be responsible in how we reopen, but there is no perfect timing," he said, adding he understands some in Squamish will be excited to see the attraction opening up and others will be trepidatious.
For those who are nervous he says, he gets it.
"They are not wrong," he said. "Ultimately, this whole situation is coming down to your own judgment and a shared social responsibility about that. For people who are nervous, there is no world in which we live now that has no risk. We know what we are going to do here is the very best that can be done anywhere and I am completely confident in that."
The gondola has reduced its theoretical capacity by 75%, Brown said.
Passholders will be able to bring up to four guests with them at 20% off per visit. However, tickets to the general public will not be sold in this initial phase.
Hours of operation in the first phase will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the last download at 7 p.m.
The Sea to Summit Trail will remain closed.
Annual passes will be valid as of May 22, but the gondola says it will not be reinstating time left on passes until June 1st. For example, those who had eight months left as of March 19 when the gondola paused operations will have 8 months left as of June 1.
In the second phase, later in the summer, the gondola says it will be opening its online ticket store for pre-purchased tickets.
Non-passholders will be required to purchase tickets online prior to arrival at the gondola to avoid unnecessary physical contact at ticket windows and proceed directly to the gondola from the parking lot.
The gondola says its staff will be carefully monitoring capacity and guests may be required to wait in their car prior to loading the gondola or be asked to visit later in the day.
Brown said it is weird for a tourist attraction to think about operating the business in a manner that limits, not increases, the number of people who come.
"It is a really weird headspace to be in," he said, recognizing that he feels lucky to be in the type of business that can open and put protocols in place.
"I feel for people in the industry who run buses and trains and resorts and all those things that are far more complex and harder to imagine a clear pathway to reopening."
He said the hardest part of the pandemic was laying off the gondola's workforce again, after reopening in February.
"I know everyone has had that experience, so it is not a woe-is-me scenario, but after keeping everybody going for six months of shut down and then opening for four weeks and five days and then having to lay off almost everybody — including management — that was heartbreaking. It really was."
Financially, the last year with both shutdowns, has been a hit for the gonolda that has made him appreciate banks, Brown said with a laugh, adding that CIBC has been supportive of the business plan going forward and extended the company’s credit.
"It has been tough," he said. "We have had to make decisions we wouldn't have otherwise made."
The Sky Spiral construction has been deferred to spring of 2021, for example.
[But Brown said he is excited that it will be going ahead next year and can’t wait for visitors to see the views offered by the 2.5-km-long elevated tree walkway.]
In the meantime, on Friday night, the gondola is streaming the Hairfarmers live in support of Sea to Sky Community Services.
Brown said it is the Friday nights with all the locals he will miss most, but the gondola is looking for new ways to engage the community.
"It is going to be an adjustment for all of us, but we need to step smartly and gently into this new reality and get used to it."
~With files from Steven Chua