New Brunswick

Saint John's premier tourist attraction faces a summer without tourists

Vendors in the Saint John City Market rely on tourists for a big part of their sales, but with cruise visits cancelled and the province's borders closed, summer of 2020 is shaping up to be a tough season.

Saint John City Market relies on tourists, but pandemic likely means tough summer for vendors

The Saint John City Market, shown in this file photo, is known as the centrepiece of the city centre. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The Saint John City Market is undoubtedly the city's most popular tourist attraction.

Its huge, vaulted ceilings and colourful stalls feature prominently in both local and provincial tourist guides.

And it is marketed as the first stop for cruise ship passengers visiting the city.

When a ship is in port, the aisles of the market are packed with people.

But, this tourist season will be very different. The cruise ship visits have been cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the province's borders are still closed to travellers to keep the virus at bay.

The Saint John City Market, built in 1785, is a national historic site. (CBC)

It's a tough pill to swallow for vendors like Bruce MacLeod.

He operates two stalls in the market, Pat's Secret Garden and Land & Sea.

One sells ornamental and decorative objects, the other clothing, much of which has "Saint John, NB" emblazoned on it.

He needs tourists.

"It's very tourism-related," MacLeod said from behind a cloth mask. "It's the difference between being here or not."

Bruce MacLeod says his two market stalls are aimed at tourist business. He estimates 60 to 70 per cent of his sales come from cruise ship passengers visiting the city. (Steven Webb/CBC)

"I'm trying to stay positive, but it's really difficult to do this," he said.

MacLeod can't say for sure how much business he gets from cruise ship passengers, but he estimates it is 60 to 70 per cent of what he earns. 

Given the cruise season is May to October, with most of the ships arriving in the last three months, MacLeod has a small window to make his money, and that window is closed.

"Normally I'm squirreling away nuts now for winter," he said.

But, this year he's going into summer already behind, with two months of lost business from the COVID-19 lockdown.

With no cruise ships visiting the city this year, and the province's borders closed up tight, the normally bustling Saint John City Market is facing a summer of slow sales and few tourists. (Steven Webb/CBC)

He said he has applied for help under the federal government's program for small business emergency relief. He said if that application isn't accepted, it's going to be an even tougher year.

Farther down the market, the normally busy coffee retailer Java Moose is just a shell.

It's one of four coffee outlets in the area owned by Glen McLean and Randy Pedersen. The two made the decision to close down and renovate the city market location during the pandemic.

"It's a perfect opportunity for us to redo the market [location]," McLean said in a phone interview, adding it hasn't had a major revamp in nearly two decades.

Saint John had 90 cruise ship visits scheduled for this year. It was projected to be a record season, with more than 200,000 visitors. (CBC)

While the coffee outlet gets a lot of local business from regulars, McLean said the cruise ships are still a big part of their business.

In fact, they planned to have the renovation done by August because the federal government originally only banned cruise ship visits to Canada up until July 31. But Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced May 29 the ban would be extended until the end of October.

"Every vendor in that market is dependent on tourism," McLean said. "We get a huge boost from cruise ships."

McLean said without the ships, his city market location will be even more reliant on local traffic. But even that is slow, with many uptown businesses still asking many employees to work from home.

The coffee retailer Java Moose is using the economic slowdown as an opportunity to renovate its market location. They had hoped to be finished in August in time for the return of cruise ship visits, but Ottawa cancelled the remainder of the cruise season on May 29. (Steven Webb/CBC)

"Hopefully, the tall buildings uptown will have people in them soon," he said.

That's probably not going to be much help for MacLeod, who instead is waiting to see if there's an added benefit to the Maritime provinces' apparent success battling COVID-19.

"Our only salvation is if there are some borders opened this summer," MacLeod said.

He said some interprovincial travel could help if New Brunswick opens its borders with Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

"But even if that happens in July...," said MacLeod, who ended the sentence with a shrug of his shoulders.

Uncertain future

MacLeod said he'll try to ride out the storm in hopes next tourism season will be better. But, he wonders how long it will take for the overall tourism industry to recover.

"It's overwhelming to think of the scale — airlines, cruise lines, hotels — big, big companies, and they're our feeders."

And McLean wonders if cruise ships will even return to Canadian ports next year.

"I follow that industry closely, and I've read that the big cruise lines have set aside enough cash until the end of 2021," McLean said.

But his focus is also on the fall of this year and the warnings of a possible second wave of COVID-19 during retail's other big season: Christmas.

"Everyone is preparing that we're going to be closed at Christmas and that is scary."

 

About the Author

Steven Webb

Producer

Steven Webb is a producer for CBC based in Saint John

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