Nfld. & Labrador

Staycations offered little reprieve to pandemic-pummeled businesses

COVID-19 came in like a tidal wave, and a pair of boat tour companies did their best to weather it. At the end of the season, they did eight per cent of their regular business.

Data still being gathered, but snapshots point to huge losses for tourism and hospitality industry

O'Brien's and Gatherall's have partnered this summer to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. While the partnership kept both companies in the water, the lack of tourists was a devastating blow. (CBC)

The best intentions of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were not enough to save the 2020 tourism season.

Monday marked the last official day of the summer high season, and while Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador is still gathering data, all indicators so far suggest it was a terrible summer for those in the overlapping hospitality and tourism sectors.

Altogether, seventeen of the largest hotels in St. John's posted a 72 per cent decrease in revenue from last summer.

Restaurants, which were accustomed to taking in $70,000 to $80,000 a month in sales in 2019, were dashed to about $30,000 a month by April, and the most it has risen to since is slightly above $50,000.

The hotel industry was hit hard in St. John's, with massive drops in revenue. Some hotels, including the Hilton DoubleTree, shut down for a period during the pandemic. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Even the most established tourism operators took a massive hit during the pandemic.

COVID-19 struck the seafaring O'Brien and Gatherall families like a rogue wave, and while they did their best to stave it off, they came up 92 per cent short.

The two families — long-standing rivals in the Bay Bulls business community — partnered this summer with hopes that combining resources would help save their tour boat companies.

It did, but the best they could do was rake in eight per cent of their regular revenue.

"We can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," said Joe O'Brien. "We depend on tourists travelling from abroad, and that didn't happen this year."

Joe O'Brien the government needs to come up with a long-term strategy: 'It seems like COVID is going to be around for a while.' (Cal Tobin/CBC)

O'Brien said they appreciated the efforts of every single person they took on the water this year. They saw plenty of locals step up, but it just wasn't enough.

He said both companies will go their separate ways again for the off-season, and will handle online bookings with hopes that the pandemic is behind us by the summer of 2021.

At the same time, they're calling on the government to help with a contingency plan.

"We've asked for talks with the federal and provincial government on a long-term strategy, because it seems like COVID is going to be around for a while. Until everybody is safe to travel, we're going to need a financial plan that secures our businesses to be able to be there in the future."

Small towns hit hard

Deborah Bourden owns several small businesses in Twillingate, including a restaurant, a pub, a hotel and a café.

She's a major player on the province's tourism scene, with Twillingate's emergence as one of the premiere destinations for travellers from abroad.

Deborah Bourden is the co-owner of several business in Twillingate, including the Anchor Inn Hotel, Hodge Premises and the Alphabet Fleet Inn. (CBC)

In March and April, Bourden was preparing to make between two and four per cent of last year's revenues. The end result will likely be around 15 per cent.

It's a win in some ways, but not one that the bank will be thrilled about.

"We succeeded and exceeded our projections for a COVID year, but as a tourism operation that still now has to find a way to continue to pay our bills for the rest of this winter and into next spring before we get to opening up again, it's a big, big challenge."

While it was a very lean year, Bourden said business from staycationers was enough to keep many businesses afloat.

"Our goal at the beginning of the season was still to be standing so we have an opportunity to be around for the 2021 season, so that's what many of us have done and that's the only way we'll survive the summer."

Twillingate is a scenic town located on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, where icebergs, whales and puffins are a common sight. Out-of-province tourists are usually a common sight, too, but 2020 was a different year. (Submitted by Walter Gill)

Bourden would like to see Canadian travel return to normal by next spring. The bulk of Canadian tourists in Twillingate are from Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, none of whom were allowed in this year.

She said some smaller operators did have a close-to-normal year, while other medium and larger enterprises were hit much harder.  

"We have to look at the industry as a whole. This has crippled us, really."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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