By Steve Hubrecht

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User fees at the famous Radium Hot Springs pools are set to double starting in the new year, and the move has created a backlash among upset local residents.

Parks Canada posted a notice on its website about the price increase nearly a couple weeks ago, prompting a rush on existing tickets as well a minor flood of complaints from readers to the Pioneer expressing dismay, disappointment and, in one case, downright fury.

As of right now, single entry to the pools is $8 for an adult, $7 for a senior, $6.75 for youth (aged three to 17) or $24.50 for an entire family. Day passes (with as many entries as you like in a single day) are $12.75 for adults, $11.75 for seniors, $11.25 for youths, and $39.50 for families. The Radium pools sells books of 10 entry tickets, which are very popular with local residents, and these cost $70 for an adult, $62.50 for seniors, and $60 for youths. A season pass is $149.25 for adults, $112 for seniors or youths and $410 for families.

But starting on Jan. 1, a week and a half after this issue of the Pioneer hits newsstands, those prices will go up to single entry fees of $16.50 for adults, $14.25 for seniors and youth, and $53 for a family. Day passes will be $25.50 for adults, $22 for seniors and youth, and $82 for families. Books of 10 entry tickets will be $149.75 for adults, and $129.25 for seniors and youth. Season’s passes will be $220.50 for adults, $187.50 for seniors and youth, and $652.75 for families.

One local resident who contacted the Pioneer pointed out that the cost of taking a family for a half hour dip in the hot pools will soon be equivalent to nearly half a day’s pay (for someone making minimum wage), and opined that at such rates the Radium pools can hardly be considered an ‘affordable’ activity anymore.

But as Parks Canada chief operating officer for Canadian Rockies hot springs, Julian England, told the Pioneer, the price increase merely brings the Radium pools prices in line with those at other Parks Canada springs and private hot springs. England also pointed out that even with the price hikes, the Radium hot pools are not a revenue generator for Parks Canada.

“The fees do not exceed the cost of delivering services, and all the money (from fees) is directly used to provide the hot pools experience,” said England. 

He noted that prices at the Radium hot pools have been essentially frozen since 2004, and “of course, since then our operating costs have increased substantially…(at Radium) we have been running at a loss for some time, if you look at the total cost of operating the facilities.”

Although news of the price increase first came to attention of many valley residents a few weeks ago, it actually has been in the cards for some time, following consultation in 2019 (which was the subject of a Pioneer news story at the time) and a federal ministerial decision back in 2021.

“The conclusion of that consultation was that what we term ‘private benefit services’, which include hot springs, should recover their costs,” explained England. He noted that since Parks Canada is federally run and since the Radium Hot Springs are funded by all Canadian taxpayers, the consultation was conducted on a nation-wide basis.

“Our fee adjustment considers inflation across those 18 years (since 2004) and what our cost structure is, in terms of operational and capital costs,” said England. “It also considers market conditions for things like private hot springs operators, to ensure we are not drastically undercutting private businesses.”

The federal Services Fees Act directs public federal agencies (such as Parks Canada) to charge fees for private benefit services that are roughly equivalent to private market conditions. 

“We are now on par with the average price of visiting hot springs — private ones or public ones — in B.C. and Alberta,” said England. “It’s also comparable to the price of cinema tickets.”

Interestingly, those two benchmarks — the average hot springs entry fee in B.C. and Alberta, and the costs of movie theatre tickets — were also used during the last significant fee adjustment for the Radium pools, back in 2004. They were also used in the previous big fee adjustment before that, in 1992.

Even so, England conceded that Parks Canada is not surprised that many people are upset, given the sheer amount of that prices are going up.

“It is a large increase, so there was some expectation (on Parks Canada’s behalf) that there would be some concern,” said England, quickly adding that in terms of affordable options for local residents, Parks Canada will continue to offer discounted options for multiple entry, such as the books of 10 tickets and the season’s passes.

“If you visit 14 times a year, which is just slightly more often than once a month, your best option is certainly a season’s pass,” he said.

One unintended side effect of the price increase announcement was that it prompted a rush of local residents eager to snap up those books of 10 tickets while they were still available at 2022 prices. The Pioneer stopped by the Radium hot pools office not long after the Parks Canada posting that reminded the public of the pending entry fee hike, and was told by hot pools staff that all the books had sold out in a flurry since the posting. The staff expressed surprise, saying the amount of ticket books they’d had on hand would normally have taken months to sell, but had been bought up instead in a matter of days.

“Certainly there was a bigger rush than we anticipated,” conceded England, when asked about the 2022-priced ticket books selling out like hot cakes.“We sold much more than our typical run rate in December, and they sold out very quickly,” he said.

In case you are wondering, hot pools entry prices at Radium are now identical to those at the two other public hot springs in the Canadian Rockies run by Parks Canada: the Banff Upper Hot Springs in Banff National Park and the Miette Hot Springs in Jasper National Park.

Several of those who called in to the Pioneer upset about the entry fee increase opined that Banff Upper Hot Springs and Miette Hot Springs have far better facilities than those in Radium, and suggested that should mean cheaper prices at Radium. As one caller put it: “Why should people in the Columbia Valley pay the same for a crappier facility?”

When the Pioneer put the question to England, he pointed to the numerous major capital infrastructure projects Parks Canada has undertaken at the Radium pool in recent years, and said “these (higher) fees will allow us to make investments and improve the condition of the facilities at Radium. There has been substantial investment in the Radium hot pools over the past six years. We’ve spent more at Radium Hot Springs over that period than at any other facility.”

Those investments include replacing the pools’ accessible walkway, entry bridge and pedestrian access ramp, as well as a major renovation of change rooms, replacing the rooftop patio deck, replacing the floor in main hall, installing new lighting, replacing windows, and basement mechanical work, which included serious upgrades to the heating, plumbing and electrical systems. 

The total price tag of this work is almost $15 million, and England noted “this program of renovation is not finished.”

In comparison, during the same time period, Parks Canada spent $2.8 million at the Banff Upper Hot Springs and $10.2 million at Miette Hot Springs. The Miette Hot Springs spending seems at least in the same ballpark as the spending at Radium Hot Springs, until you consider that nearly $8.5 million of that $10. 2 million went to a new sewage treatment plant at Miette, while only $1.7 million was spent on improving the Miette Hot Springs pools and pool building. In Radium, all of the nearly $15 million has gone to improving the pools, buildings and related structures. 

“Pools, especially hot pools, are very expensive to maintain and expensive to operate,” said England. Hot spring water shortens the lifespan of infrastructure and equipment, explained England, since the mineral content means “the water is quite aggressive”, and breaks down the equipment in hot springs facilities much more quickly than in, for instance, a community hall. The result is that upgrades are needed at hot pools much more frequently.

Radium mayor Mike Gray highlighted the important role the hot pools have played for the Village of Radium Hot Springs. “Our village is named after the pools, and we always pay attention to the work Parks Canada does in maintaining and operating the pools, including changes in prices.  Residents and visitors alike, value having such an amazing asset right on our doorstep,” Gray told the Pioneer. 

Asked if there is concern among the Radium business community that doubling of entry fees may have an effect on the village economy, either by deterring some visitors, or by causing them to cut back spending on food, accommodation or other items, in order to claw back some of the extra expense of the pools, Gray replied “With costs changing in almost every sector I think most people were understanding that Parks Canada was going to have to change the prices at some point to bring them in line with other comparable activities.”

Gray added “any time there is a price change it takes time for everyone to adjust. The Columbia Valley offers a great value for our guests. When visitors compare the total cost of their trip  —accommodations, services, activities, etc. — people see it is the best bang for their buck compared to other options around the Canadian Rockies.”