Locals say Malahat work will scare off tourists

Cowichan Valley tourism businesses are questioning the timing of planned ugrades to the Malahat Highway that runs between Victoria and Mill Bay, afraid they will see a huge drop in business like they did last summer when the highway was under construction.

"We definitely noticed the difference last year," said Mark Holford, owner of Rocky Creek Winery in Cowichan Bay. "We did see a big drop."

"We’re also very worried about it happening again. It seems like they picked the worst time possible for tourism to be shutting it down and kinda scaring off everyone from making the trip up-Island."

The provincial government announced this month that they have awarded an $8.3 million contract to Dawson Construction Ltd. to carry out construction designed to improve safety on the highway.

The work to be done incudes widening the highway and installing 2.3 kilometres of median barrier from Shawnigan Lake Road north to the Malahat Summit.

"This will improve safety in an area known to locals as NASCAR Corner," the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said in a press release.

Work will also be done to construct a one-kilometre southbound passing-lane extension and improving Whittaker Road and Holker Place intersections.

The work will start in May and finish next spring.

The timeline means that work will be going on throughout peak and shoulder tourist season.

The ministry said in an email to the Citizen that they are working with Dawson Construction to finalize schedule for the road work.

"The ministry is committed to providing the public with advance warnings about this work and minimizing delays by not stopping traffic during peak periods, or on weekends," the email states.

The assurances don’t allay Holford’s fears. When the Ministry talks about minimizing disruptions during peak periods, he said, they are referring to rush hour – the opposite of when tourists are likely to be travelling.

"I think the timing that they’re going to do it is basically smack dab in the middle of when people would want to be travelling up-Island to come visit us, so I don’t think that stopping for rush hour is going to help us a whole lot," Holford said.

Janet Docherty of Merridale Cider said they, too, saw a big drop in business last summer due to the Malahat construction.

"It had a massive impact on our business," she said. "Last year we basically got shut down at various points in the year because they chose to do the work in prime tourism season and even advised people not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary."

They’re worried about another year of disruptions.

Rocky Creek and other Cowichan tourist businesses do a lot to market themselves to people who are visiting Victoria, Holford said, and those people are a big piece of their business.

"Anything that discourages people is a huge concern to us because we know people have choices and they can choose to do something in Saanich and stay on the peninsula rather than make the trip up over the Malahat to the Cowichan Valley.

"We think we’ve got some really cool things to offer but it’s tough when they know there could be this major log jam getting here," Holford said.