High season not so hot this year, say tourism operators
Some operators seeing 'minimal' effect from Atlantic bubble
It's high season in the tourism industry — but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, business isn't booming as usual this year.
For many in the business, it's a summer of survival, as the $1-billion industry has been devastated by travel restrictions aiming to stop the spread of the virus.
Once-shuttered hotels are slowly reopening, some businesses are operating at half-capacity, and others aren't opening at all.
"We've just had such a devastating year, specifically in the hospitality industry and in particular in this hotel," said Jane Kingston, general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton, formerly the Quality Inn Hotel, on Hill O' Chips in St. John's.
The hotel had to shut down for months because of the pandemic.
"Every summer normally we see between 72 and 80 motorcoach tours pass by our hotel, so the loss there has been so significant, at least $1.5 million, not to mention the loss of our corporate guests," said Kingston.
She said the hotel was hoping to reap the reward of a multimillion-dollar renovation this summer, but business is slow.
Kingston said they aren't seeing many staycationers at the hotel, as many are leaving the Avalon Peninsula for more rural parts of the province. She said people from the so-called "Atlantic bubble" are also spending time in those areas, because the Argentia ferry isn't running and there's limited air access to St. John's.
"We're not seeing the real benefits of the bubble," said Kingston.
At the height of pandemic, several St. John's hotels, including Hilton Garden Inn, Murray Premises, Courtyard by Marriott and the Sheraton, were closed. While most have started to reopen, some are still shuttered.
"We're looking at some of the major hotels not even opening here yet, which is quite unbelievable," said Kingston.
She would like to see governments step up with additional assistance for the tourism industry, like having property taxes held where they are, low-interest loans, continuing wage subsidies and improved air access to the province.
"We are in a predicament and we really need help in some form," said Kingston.
Partnerships and paused operations
O'Briens and Gatheralls, two storied boat tour operators in Bay Bulls who partnered to survive this season, say there's no comparison between this year and last.
"A good day in July with sunshine and lots of whales, between the two companies you'd have probably 600, 700 people a day, on average. And some days might be 1,100, 1,200 people, if it's an exceptional day," said Al Gatherall.
The two companies have one boat in the water between them, and it's operating at half-capacity to observe physical distancing guidelines.
"We started out thinking we weren't going to get many people, and now we're doing two and three trips a day," said Joe O'Brien.
O'Brien said they're tracking where guests are from, should they need to do contact tracing. So far, most guests aboard the boat are young families from St. John's, Mount Pearl and Conception Bay South — not far away from Bay Bulls.
"Most people seem to be from Newfoundland.… There are a few from Halifax, or from parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I.," added Gatherall.
"I'm very pleased. I can't be more happier than what I am about how many people have been coming to this Atlantic bubble," said O'Brien.
Gatherall said a further expansion of borders and a Canadian bubble is inevitable.
"But it has to be within the guidelines that is going to keep most Canadians safe."
Meanwhile, another tour operator has opted not to open this year.
Kier Knudsen, who owns the Dark Tickle Company, in St. Lunaire-Griquet on the Northern Peninsula, offers expeditions to see icebergs, whales and seabirds.
"We would not make our money back," Knudsen said.
"The bottom line is the whole business across the board is down about 90 per cent," he said.
Knudsen's company also makes berry jams, spreads, sauces and teas, which are sold in gift shops across the province.
But sales have flat-lined, because there are fewer tourists visiting those shops.
"There's no orders coming in, so that's probably the worst-hit part of the whole operation," he said.
He said they're seeing a few staycationers on the Northern Peninsula, but the effect of the Atlantic bubble is "minimal."
"Very few," said Knudsen. "Traditionally, the demographic that comes here, 70 per cent is from southern Ontario or Ontario, Quebec and the U.S.
"It's kind of a big hole to fill with staycations or the Atlantic bubble."
But when it comes to further opening of borders to the rest of Canada, Knudsen is worried about what would happen if COVID-19 infections started to spread on the Northern Peninsula, since the population there is aging.
"We'd have to be very, very careful.… If COVID got it up here, I think it could be disastrous."
Knudsen would like to see governments continue support for workers, especially seasonal staff, because he worries about having workers around for next year.
"If they haven't got their hours and whatnot, how do they make it through the winter?"