Old Quebec a 'ghost town' without usual influx of cruise ship tourists

October is usually cruise ship season in Quebec City, and tourists flock from all over to take in the fall foliage. The coronavirus pandemic has upended the city's economy, the question now is: how will it recover?

Area's hotels usually teem with tourists in autumn, but the coronavirus changed all that

The view this week from the 'escalier Casse-Cou' in Old Quebec's Petit Champlain neighbourhood. The area is usually filled with tourists but the COVID-19 pandemic has rewritten the rules of the local economy. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

The Hôtel Clarendon, a stalwart brick tower inside the ramparts of Old Quebec, bills itself as Canada's oldest hotel and 2020 was meant to be a celebration of its 150th anniversary.

Instead, the place is empty, its spotless brass doors locked.

"This was supposed to be a party here for us, the best year," said Marc-Olivier Côté, a co-owner and the hotel's general manager. "Suddenly everything goes down the drain. This is unbelievable for us. But that's the way it is, we understand people are dying right now."

Like hundreds of other businesses in tourism-dependent Quebec City, the Clarendon bore the full brunt of the first COVID-19 wave this past spring.

It closed temporarily then and has decided to shut down again for the month of October, and possibly longer. It is one of at least 20 hotels in the city to close its doors during the second wave.

"There's no one, literally, in Old Quebec," Côté said.

Marc-Olivier Côté, the co-owner and general manager of Old Quebec's Hotel Clarendon, stands in front of the main doors of his historic hotel. He and his partners decided to close for the month of October because of the grim financial picture. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

According to the association that represents the area's hotel owners, 4,000 people in the hospitality sector will be out of work by the time November rolls around.

No one disputes the need for extraordinary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in the city. It's hit the critical alert level on the province's colour-coded map for a reason.

But this week the Association hotelière de la région de Québec (AHRQ) held a protest rally in hopes of attracting the province and the city's attention. 

Côté said he and his partners are trying to find new sources of financing to stay afloat (the fact the hotel was closed for all of 2019 because of a major fire doesn't help) but that the various aid packages on offer don't apply to their situation.

Marjolaine De Sa, executive director of the AHRQ, said that's a common plight. The province announced a $750 million fund for emergency loans to the tourism industry in July, but De Sa said only 10 per cent of hotel owners qualify under the current rules.

The industry group is asking for easier access, and for a tax break from the city. The various hotel taxes account for $51 million in a typical year, De Sa said. It will take years to recover from COVID-19, she added.

Last week, Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx indicated her willingness to negotiate "adjustments" to the rescue fund. The hoteliers say they're running out of time to talk.

Dagmar Lombard and her husband manage Old Quebec's Auberge Saint-Antoine, which she says is at five per cent occupancy so far this month. It's forced the management tandem to get creative. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

Dagmar Lombard, general-manager of the Auberge Saint-Antoine, a family-owned boutique hotel in the city's Old Port, said she's at five per cent occupancy. In a typical October, that number would be 85 per cent or higher.

"My husband and I said the other day, it's a little bit like a ghost town. Could be nice for Halloween but it's rather sad, obviously," she said.

Not only the is the hotel relatively empty, what business it has drummed up through its various staycation promotions is vastly less profitable. The average room rate in October is around $400, Lombard said, but rates have been slashed to $149.

It's the price to pay in order to lure in a coronavirus-weary local clientèle.

De Sa said that if the current anti-virus measures are maintained for another month, it will imperil Christmas bookings, which many businesses were hoping could stem the flow of red ink. She said a total of 80 hotels could end up shutting down if the situation doesn't improve by mid-November.

"We're going to finish [2020] under 20 per cent [occupancy]," De Sa told CBC's Breakaway this week. "You have to understand that just to open the doors of a hotel you need between 40 and 45 per cent, depending on the loans of the owners, etc."

The association expects its members to close out October with an average occupancy of between two and four per cent for the month. That's compared to 33 per cent in August.

with files from Spencer Van Dyk

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