Quebecers snatch up park passes as many prepare for a camping-filled summer close to home

In just two days, the agency that manages Quebec's provincial parks network, SEPAQ, has sold twice as many annual park passes as it usually sells all year.

Provincial parks network normally sells about 60,000 passes in entire year. In two days, they sold 110,000

Jacques-Cartier park, 30 minutes by car from Quebec City, is a popular weekend destination for people in southern Quebec. (SANDRA LALANCETTE/RADIO-CANADA)

In just two days, the agency that manages Quebec's provincial parks network, SEPAQ, has sold twice as many annual park passes as it usually sells all year.

The passes went on sale on the SEPAQ website for $34.90 on Monday morning.

That's half-price, thanks to a $5-million incentive program launched by the Quebec Tourism Ministry, in an effort to encourage Quebecers to vacation closer to home in the coming year.

As of Tuesday evening, more than 123,000 passes had been sold. That compares to the usual average of 60,000 passes per year, a spokesperson for SEPAQ said.

Thousands of people logged on to their computers as soon as the registration site went live on Monday morning — in some cases waiting for hours to purchase their pass.

By Tuesday, online traffic had slowed down, said SEPAQ's Mélanie Pageau. However, with a total of 140,000 passes available, SEPAQ expects them to sell out.

"Attraction passports," which offer discounts on admission to museums, historical and recreational sites and other places, also went on sale on the Tourism Quebec website this week.

Bic park, outside Rimouski, is among SEPAQ's 24 parks across the province. (Julia Page/CBC)

Adapting to pandemic measures

The financial incentive program is meant to give a much-needed boost to the tourism industry right across Quebec, hard hit by the pandemic.

However, encouraging more Quebecers to travel between regions poses public health risks, with the novel coronavirus still on the loose.

SEPAQ had initially advised travellers to go directly from their homes to the park that they're planning to visit, as Quebec's public health authorities recommended.

"But now we know that the measures are being lifted a little — now we want people to go in the regions and to spend money in the shops and restaurants. Now we are encouraging people to visit the regions," Pageau said. 

Pageau said SEPAQ is relying on tourists to behave responsibly and respect public-health directives to counter the spread of COVID-19. 

The parks agency is putting in place its own measures to curb the spread of the virus, such as limiting the number of people in common spaces, cleaning bathrooms and service centres more regularly, and creating one-way walking trails. 

The province's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, urged Quebecers Tuesday to continue following hygienic measures such as wearing a mask, physical distancing and washing hands regularly, especially as the COVID-19 curve wanes, partly due to summer temperatures and more people spending time outdoors. 

"If everyone goes back to normal life, [the virus] will reignite, because a majority of Quebecers were not exposed to it and are therefore untouched in terms of their immunity from the virus," said Arruda.

"The virus will hit again, that's clear."

Watch: Horacio Arruda expects a second wave

Quebec's COVID-19 2nd wave likely on the way

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Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda says he's 95 per cent certain the province will be hit by a second wave of COVID-19 and we cannot let our guard down. 1:42

Stéphane Ste-Croix, executive director of Destination Gaspé, says tourism businesses are bracing for the arrival of visitors from Montreal, the Canadian city hardest hit by COVID-19.

Ste-Croix said there is a certain level of anxiety, however, lots of tourists would be good news for the region's economy, even if restaurants, shops and hotels do have to make a lot of changes to prevent the virus's spread.

"It's a part of life for now, and that's the way it is. We have to adapt to those realities," Ste-Croix said.

With so much interest in regional travel this year, Ste-Croix recommends visitors call ahead to book rooms.

Though he admits there will be a challenging period of adjustment for his region's tourism industry, he said he's confident it will all work out.

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