Before COVID-19 changed everything, Katt Hryciw was like tens of thousands of others who hoped to secure a camp in Banff National Park this summer.
He set the alarm, got up early and sat quietly in front of his computer.
“And as soon as eight o’clock, it was only an hour of frustration, trying to order anything and most of it didn’t work,” he said.
This is an annual ritual for many would-be campers: enter Park Canada’s online reservation system when it opens, just to see the website slow to crawl or strike at all.
By the time you make it work, other people have already taken the site you are looking for.
Or worse – you succeeded almost secure a site at a popular campsite, just so the system fails at the payment step. When you re-enter, the coveted site remains locked from your previous reservation attempt.
“That has happened repeatedly,” said Hryciw, “which in my opinion is most frustrating.”
Parks Canada thinks this has been solved this year, with a redesigned computer system designed to handle online problems. But internal emails reveal how the system is bent – again – under the burden of tens of thousands of users who all tried to enter when the camp went on sale.
“The launch of Banff today is less than extraordinary,” read an e-mail from noon on January 8, obtained under a request for freedom of information.
The visitor’s experience director Ed Jager later told CBC News that the system was controlled by 35,000 web users who were trying to connect simultaneously that morning.
“We are working with our system providers to reconfigure the server so that we can accommodate a higher number of reservation users simultaneously,” Jager said in an interview. “And the reconfiguration did not happen as it should. And that’s what ultimately caused the slowdown.”
With the website being non-functional for many users, Parks Canada chose to reboot the system altogether, evicting users who are conducting transactions and causing them to lose their ongoing reservations.
Jager said it was a difficult but necessary decision. He said no one finally paid for a reservation that they didn’t receive, but acknowledged that many were frustrated by watching their reservations on the verge of completing a slip through their fingers and then being taken by someone else after a system reset.
Competition for sites can be fierce, and some users have long suspected others of playing game systems.
Script or automatic bot?
For years, frustrated camper candidates have wondered whether campsites are inhaled by people who use automated scripts or “bots” to make reservations faster than humans make possible.
Parks Canada has long denied that, but internal emails show even they are suspicious when they see the volume of online traffic this year.
“Yesterday alone, only six travel companies made more than 2,300 (!) Orders at 3 pm,” one email reads, the day after reservations at Banff went on sale.
“This high volume really looks like they have to be with automatic scripts (macro or ‘bot’).”
Jager said the e-mail was written by a colleague “on a hot day.” Parks Canada then investigated the traffic in more detail, and determined that the tour company did not actually use the automation to make all the bookings.
“The way they might get that volume is they have a number of employees in the system, trying to make reservations,” he said.
“And that’s our way that we want the system to work. We want individual users to be on the system. Of course, we don’t want people using scripts or bots or whatever, and there is no evidence of that.”
CBC News reaches out to the six companies identified in the Parks Canada email. Three of them answered, each saying roughly the same thing.
Each company says it employs around three to 10 people – real people behind keyboards – to enter Parks Canada’s reservation system and place orders manually. Unlike most everyday campers, they do this all day long, so ordering increases quickly.
They also say that they tend to look for dates that are less popular than regular campers, because their clients are often international travelers who enjoy camping in the middle of the week.
However, for those who have to camp on weekends or on limited holidays, there may be hope.
New system sought
Parks Canada said it was looking for a completely new reservation system.
It has issued a tender to find a provider, but it is unclear whether the new system will be ready for the 2021 camping season, because the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into many Canadian Park operations, including encampment.
“We are working through a contract process and it is not wise for me to predict when we will launch the new system,” Jager said.
And as much as the current system frustrates many users, he also notes it works – even on launch day – for many people. All told, 22,000 campsites were booked in Banff on January 8 alone. That sets a new record.
“So, while people are frustrated, more people have made reservations that day than those who have made reservations before,” Jager said.
As for Hryciw, he said he managed to get the site on Two Jack Lake, after all – but not through normal channels.
After complaining about the reservation system on social media, he said he was contacted by another Calgary resident who had tried to book a pair of sites at the popular campsite for themselves and a friend, but could only get one of the two sites they wanted. They decided to camp elsewhere, and offered to move their reservation.
But the reservation was for the end of June, and it was not clear whether the camp would reopen at that time. For now, campsites in the national park remain closed due to a pandemic and will not reopen until June 21, at the earliest.
Parks Canada said an announcement about how and when the camp would reopen was expected “at a later date.”
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