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Albertans wait out winter in B.C.

A Calgary couple and their special needs child are soaking up the slower pace this winter among snowbirds at an RV park on Vancouver Island.

"They call Davi their surrogate grandchild," said mom Melody Shapiro, describing the socially-distanced interactions between her eight-year-old son and older park residents. "He is a joy bug. He imposes his happiness on everyone."

Sarah Littlejohn, co-owner of Living Forest Oceanside Campground and RV Park in Nanaimo said "he's a great little kid. Everyone loves him.”

Davi, who is non-verbal autistic, has shown improvement since arriving with his mom and dad Doron Batshaw last September.

"He has been much more attentive and focused since we got here," said Shapiro. "It has been very rehabilitating for him and for us."

While COVID-19 was a factor in their decision for the temporary trek west, Shapiro said the slower pace of life was even more important.

"In Calgary, the pandemic was very confining. It's easier to socially distance at Living Forest," said Shapiro.

When Batshaw was laid off from his job at a drilling company in March, the couple made plans to head west. Shapiro said they're glad they booked early and found a spot while many snowbirds were unable to.

"We are sick with happiness here," said Shapiro, who home schools Davi through the Okotoks-based Centre for Learning at Home. "This is a very affordable way to live."

The couple, who have two rental properties in Alberta, are not certain where they will go once their eight-month stay at Living Forest finishes at the end of April. They may move to a different RV park for the summer or return to Calgary.

"We don't take it long term," said Shapiro, who also has a part-time art and aromatherapy business. 

Like most every other RV park in B.C., Living Forest is at capacity with a waiting list - although the facility did accommodate six pre-booked out-of-province guests in early December.

"We can't turn them away. They don't have a home to go back to. They live in their RV and that's why we're considered an essential service," said Littlejohn.

The closed U.S. border has resulted in about double the number of out-of-province RVs in B.C. compared to previous years, said the executive director of the B.C. Lodging and Campgrounds Association.

"There definitely are wait lists at most places. The demand on the island is way up," said the association's Joss Penny, adding that many parks expanded their properties this year to include room for more RVs.

"The ones who missed out were those who procrastinated. If you didn't book early you didn't get in," said Penny, adding, "We're not encouraging travel now."

In contrast, higher COVID-19 numbers along with a travel advisory issued by the B.C. government discouraging non-essential travel prompted a rush of cancellations at hotels and rental properties on Vancouver Island of about 60 per cent during the holidays, said Anthony Everett, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver Island.