British Columbia

Tourist businesses face make-or-break summer as visitors stay home

The summer looks bleak for some businesses in the beachfront town of Parksville, B.C., as international visitors stay away. But there is some hope that domestic tourists will partly fill the gap.

Parksville businesses hope for more domestic tourists to make up for drop in international visitors

Dark clouds move in on a sunny sky above the normally busy Paradise Adventure mini-golf course. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

This time every year, Susan LaFauci, her husband, and their son can be found buzzing around the Paradise Fun Park mini-golf course in Parksville, B.C.

Over the last 32 years, the LaFaucis have built the business into a local landmark — a must-stop spot for tourists visiting the island.

But as the height of summer approaches, there is an economic storm brewing that could be catastrophic for the tourist town and its businesses. With large groups discouraged from gathering and most international flights grounded due to COVID-19, the beachfront town is unusually quiet. 

"Normally our season begins in May for the May long weekend. We always say that's the start of our busy-ness and as you can see, it's not busy," said LaFauci.

On the afternoon CBC visited, just six people were on the mini-golf course, a tenfold decrease from the 50 or 60 patrons the business would normally expect at this time of year. Their group cancellations have skyrocketed as well.

Susan LaFauci, centre, runs the Paradise Adventure mini-golf course with her son and husband. They are worried a sub-par summer could sink their popular summer attraction. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

"We usually get 20 or 30 large school groups in the spring and they were all cancelled this year. That really hurts," she said.

In addition to the mini-golf course, the LaFaucis own a full-sized golf course, a motel, and a seaside RV campsite — all of which have seen a dramatic drop in business in the last two months.

"We just came through a winter where we were closed, into a spring where we were closed again, to now. If things don't improve I can only imagine, worst case scenario, we would have to close. And after 32 years I hope that doesn't happen," said LaFauci.

The parking lot at Morningstar Farm, home to Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, sits empty on a spring afternoon. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Over on Morningstar Farm, home to Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, it's a similar story: blue skies and an empty parking lot.

"There is no one here," said Raymond Gourlay, who co-manages the family farm.

"We have a calving festival that is open to the public every spring. That didn't happen. We have a jazz, tea and cheesecake concert afternoon every August. That's not going to happen. And all the weddings we had booked have been postponed."

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks is well known for its artisan cheese. Gourlay says their business model relies on a mix of on-site sales as well as tours and events. 

During their "make or break" money-making season from June through September, Gourlay estimates at least half their visitors are from overseas. That's a source of income he does not expect to return anytime soon.

Raymond Gourlay shovels hay at Morningstar Farm. He says the town of Parksvillie is in for some serious economic pain because of its reliance on tourism. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Gourlay says they have been moving sales online and, so far, they have managed to keep their 15 workers on the payroll, but they have not hired the five or so summer staff they normally need. 

Both Gourlay and LaFauci say they are banking on an increase in domestic tourism. But with public health recommendations still discouraging non-essential travel it's not clear that lifeline will materialize.

When you have that double whammy of no tourism and no entertaining, that really hits us where it hurts." Gourlay said.

"Now we are just trying to position ourselves as a destination for locals to enjoy." 

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