Visitors to Kelowna may be familiar with summer water sports and outdoor activities on and around the beautiful Okanagan Lake. They may have flocked to the area’s ski hills in the winter and attended wine tastings in the fall. But what can they expect in spring?
In the upcoming weeks, visitors are likely to find solitude on the trails, snap up the best spots in restaurants and tasting rooms, and enjoy the already balmy weather on a patio, says Lisanne Ballantyne, president and CEO, Tourism Kelowna. “I’ve already put my kayak in the water and I’m hiking regularly. I may be biased, but this is an amazing place to live – and to visit – in every season.”
Valuing research, Tourism Kelowna is turning to studies to pinpoint what attracts the two million visitors per year to the region. At the top of the list is the proximity to Okanagan Lake, with 135 kilometres of pristine beaches surrounded by stunning landscapes. The second draw is the Okanagan wine and culinary industry, says Ms. Ballantyne. “We have everything from boutique wineries to big iconic destinations like Mission Hill. We also have restaurants, craft breweries, cideries and distilleries.”
Outdoor enthusiasts and oenophiles can expect to be charmed by an appealing lifestyle as well as “amenities typically associated with larger cities, like a world-class culinary culture, a lively arts scene, 19 golf courses and one of the top 10 airports in Canada,” she notes. “When people come here and have an amazing time, many end up stopping by a local real estate office.”
Tourism can serve as a “first date,” says Ms. Ballantyne, a chance for visitors to discover a strong alignment in values. When this inspires relocation plans, “it helps Kelowna grow in a responsible and sustainable way.”
Statistics confirm the region’s appeal: with an overall 14 per cent growth rate from 2016 to 2021, the Central Okanagan Region was the fastest growing region and metro area in Canada, according to Krista Mallory, manager, Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission (COEDC).
“In that period, the area’s working-age population, people aged 15 to 64, grew by 12.6 per cent, compared to 3 per cent in Calgary and 3.7 per cent in Toronto,” she explains. “This means people are moving to the Central Okanagan region not only to retire but also to build their careers.”
They can expect ample opportunities, with job postings in the region having increased 34.3 per cent over the last year, Ms. Mallory says. “We’re seeing a massive increase in demand for workers everywhere – from entry-level to highly skilled labour – due to economic growth and an aging workforce.”
What’s more, drivers of economic growth are not limited to agriculture and viticulture. “The Okanagan tech sector, with almost 700 technology companies, has a $1.67-billion economic footprint. Another rapidly growing sector is aerospace. We are home to 18 per cent of B.C.’s aerospace companies, including KF Aerospace, Canada’s largest privately held aerospace firm,” she says. “The region also boasts over 600 manufacturing firms, making everything from custom playgrounds and splash parks to hydrogen fuel cells for commercial vehicles.”
For employment opportunities, newcomers can turn to COEDC’s Connector Program that matches them with a professional network in their fields. Entrepreneurs can tap into a well-connected ecosystem through organizations like Accelerate Okanagan, Community Futures Central Okanagan and WeBC (formerly the Women’s Enterprise Centre), which is headquartered in Kelowna.
“We benefit from a thriving and diverse economy with a very entrepreneurial spirit as well as major post-secondary institutions like UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College,” says Ms. Mallory, who likens the spirit of co-operation between these organizations to a “no-wrong-door situation, where anyone can find the right fit.”
Asked to describe what drew her to Kelowna after living in many cities across Canada, Ms. Ballantyne says, “Quality of life is the term that comes to mind – and this includes a certain energy and friendliness.
“Our community is proud of where we live. We have some of the happiest, most amiable people – and they welcome both tourists and newcomers,” she says, adding that according to a Tourism Kelowna survey, 94 per cent of residents agreed that “tourism is an important industry in Kelowna and in the Okanagan Valley.”
There are tangible benefits to be gained from an influx of diverse and multi-generational visitors and new residents. Ms. Mallory believes they add vibrancy to the community, and a growing tax base has helped to create “one of the most amenity-rich regions of this size in Canada.
“What’s unique about Kelowna – and the Central Okanagan – is that outdoor amenities are right at our doorstep,” she adds. The resulting active lifestyle makes the area sought-after for raising a family, believes Ms. Mallory, who relocated to the Okanagan after completing her degree at UBC Okanagan.
“Kelowna is outpacing the national and provincial averages of children in the region,” she says. “We saw an 11 per cent increase in the number of children between the ages of zero and 14 in the last census, compared to the national average of 3 per cent.”
Ms. Mallory enjoys regular outings with her family – and her two elementary-school-age children are fortunate to attend school adjacent to a major regional park. “Every week, on Forest Fridays, students take their learning outside and enjoy the hiking trails,” she says. “That’s an opportunity you don’t find in lots of other places.”
Original article published on April 24th, 2023 by the Globe and Mail available here.