N.B. tour operators in 'survival mode,' despite bubble
The timing of the pandemic could not be worse for seasonal tourism
Anna-Marie Weir has been guiding visitors from around the world at New Brunswick's top attractions for nearly two decades.
The tour operator can count on one hand her past clients from Atlantic Canada.
Operators of guided tours in the province say the Atlantic travel bubble — a strategy the region hopes will support the tourism sector — will do little to boost business in an industry reliant on clients from Ontario, Quebec, the U.S. and overseas.
"It will be survival of the fittest at the end of the day to a certain extent, because no one can really prepare for a pandemic," Weir said.
Weir owns Moncton-based Roads to Sea Guided Tours, which offers guided visits to the Hopewell Rocks, Fundy National Park and other sites across New Brunswick. She provides interpretation and transportation in an 11-passenger van.
In a typical year, about a third of business comes from Ontario and Quebec. Another third is made up of visitors from the U.S., with the rest of her customers travelling from overseas. The COVID-19 travel restrictions have left her with a wave of cancellations.
The timing of the pandemic could not be worse for seasonal tourism.
"It's almost like we work a full year in six months, and this is hitting our industry like nothing else could," she said.
'Trying to survive'
The president of the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick said tour operators will be struggling to stay in business even with the announcement of the Atlantic bubble, which starts Friday.
"Although they're trying to do the best they can, they're just trying to survive for the summer, so they can be alive and working for 2021 and beyond," Carol Alderdice said.
The association says only one-third of tourists to New Brunswick come from Atlantic Canada in a typical year. It's calling for more than $50 million in grants and loans from the provincial government to support operators.
Some operators see about 65 per cent of business from Quebec over the summer.
Alderdice said it's too late for the season to be salvaged even if the borders open with Ontario and Quebec in mid-July. But she remains optimistic those travel restrictions will be lifted in the coming weeks to allow for some tourists.
"That will at least give us a month or a couple of months of some actual business," she said.
Finding ways to adapt
With most of the season gone, Weir has taken on a job as a tourism relations and communications official with the Elsipogtog First Nation. She still plans to offer private day tours on the weekends.
Roads to Sea is now limited to private, higher-cost tours with friend and family bubbles, since physical distancing cannot be maintained in the vehicle. That means the most popular offering — a public tour of the Hopewell Rocks at varying tides — is cancelled this year.
Weir is planning to roll out a series of new tours in late July that she hopes will appeal to Atlantic Canadians. The day trips will have lower prices and explore experiences ranging from Mi'kmaq heritage to the culture of the Acadian coast.
She would only like to see provincial borders happen once government officials determine it is safe to do so. But that would have to happen in early August to save part of the year.
"If we can salvage the fall season that would be fantastic," Weir said.
Maritimers don't take tours
For New Brunswick's tour operators, generating local interest has always been a challenge. That often means a guided visit with transportation is not financially viable if it only caters to locals.
Danielle Timmons of Aquila Tours said the company decided not to offer tours for Atlantic Canadians this year after seeing low levels of interest in the past.
The Saint John operator offers onshore excursions for cruise ship passengers. With the entire cruise season cancelled, the company is focused on providing online training for tour guides at destinations around the world.
"It's been our experience that Maritimers tend to drive in their own cars and don't often take city tours," she said.
Timmons said it has been about a decade since guided tours were offered outside of cruises — and it was a struggle to get customers. With only 10 to 20 bookings per day compared to hundreds from cruise ships, it wasn't profitable.
"It tends to be that it's not Canadians and not people from the Maritimes who buy those types of tours," she said.
Bubble provides some hope
Shawn Gibbs, co-owner of Baymount Outdoor Adventures, said his business is operating at 20 to 30 per cent for the month of June. The company runs guided kayaking tours around the Hopewell Rocks as the tides rise and fall.
"We're hoping that with the Maritime bubble that, because we can't go anywhere else, nobody can go outside of our area, that they do start travelling," he said.
Gibbs said only about five to 10 per cent of customers for the kayak tours came from Atlantic Canada last year, with most travelling from Ontario, Quebec and New England.
He has been working at Baymount Adventures for 20 years and bought the company in January with his wife Ashley. They are hoping the federal wage subsidy and a small boost in business from the bubble will keep them afloat into next year.
The rest of the season could stay quiet, as Gibbs has little hope he will have the chance to welcome visitors from outside the region before closing in early September.
"I don't see it happening this summer in reality," he said.