Open N.L. to all Canadians by July 1, tourism council says

An advisory council on tourism is recommending Newfoundland and Labrador open to all Canadians by July 1, given projected vaccination timelines.

Advisory council also suggests April 10 opening for vaccinated Canadians

The premier's advisory council on tourism is recommending Newfoundland and Labrador open to all Canadians by July 1. (Submitted by Aimee Doiron)

The premier's advisory council on tourism is recommending Newfoundland and Labrador open to all Canadians by July 1, given projected vaccination timelines — or even earlier, if evidence allows.

The group issued its 18-page interim report to Premier Andrew Furey this week, with more recommendations to follow in the next few days. 

"To stabilize our businesses, recover and grow, we need access to these markets. Without decisive action our industry is on the cusp of experiencing devastation similar to the fishing industry in the 1992 cod moratorium," reads the report, which was released Thursday. 

"A decision on this is critical to ensure ample time for tourism businesses to prepare and customers to book their travel plans. We are fully aware that decisions about our national borders are made at a federal level and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador should follow their recommendations."

The province has had a travel ban in place for non-residents since last spring. It does allow essential workers to enter, and, as of August, those who own property in the province but aren't residents. The controversial ban faced court action over infringement of the Chart of Rights and Freedoms, but was upheld in a Supreme Court decision in September. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association plans to appeal the decision. 

The tourism council also suggests the province be open to vaccinated Canadians — who also have a negative COVID-19 test between 48 and 72 hours before travelling — as of April 10, calling it the first pathway of reopening. The report also recommends that people travelling from provinces with a low prevalence of COVID-19, based on WHO and ICAO recommendations, should be permitted entry into the province by the same date.

The group, made up of 14 tourism business leaders, was formed in January to drum up ideas on how to bolster the province's tourism industry, shredded by the pandemic over the last year.

Not 'trying to change the channel,' Furey says

But Furey, when asked about the council's April 10 recommendation, says he wants to move slowly. 

"I think that that's been the mantra of public health guidance in terms of trying to return to normal for quite some time," Furey told CBC News, shortly after an announcement that Newfoundland and Labrador could potentially rejoin the Atlantic bubble on April 19. 

"I think we would only be in Level 2 by April 9, if I'm doing the math correctly, again assuming everything goes in the right direction. [But] I think April 10 would be a little ambitious for the rest of Canada."

Premier Andrew Furey says PACT's suggestion for a July 1 opening to the rest of Canada is possible, but there's no certainty in that plan right now. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

As for a July 1 opening, Furey said it's possible, but there's no certainty right now. 

"We're certainly in a better position right now than we were heading into last summer, and I think we should celebrate the opening of the Atlantic bubble then look toward how do we then integrate that bubble with the rest of Canada," he said.

"But there were some preliminary discussions with the Atlantic premiers about how we then take the bubble of Atlantic Canada to the rest of Canada during the summer months. Nothing was decided, and of course it would have to be in alignment and in accordance with the science and directions of the chief medical officers of health"

Furey faced criticism this week over unreleased COVID-19 models he said he used in making his decision to call a snap election this winter. His decision came in for heavy criticism later, when an outbreak of the coronavirus variant B117 in the St. John's metro area in February forced voting to go to mail-in ballots only. The delayed election is now nearing the end of its ninth week.

Furey also said Thursday's announcement of the return of the Atlantic bubble has nothing to do with the backlash he has received. 

"This was an Atlantic Canadian decision. It wasn't my decision. It wasn't trying to change the channel," he said.

"I'm trying to ensure the tourism operators, the restaurateurs, the small business owners, know that there is hope and optimism into the future."

The need for more visitors

According to the interim report, the results of a March survey that canvassed tourism operators in the province suggests that 45 per cent of respondents will not reopen their businesses in 2022 if they do not open at all in 2021.

Tourism Minister Bernard Davis told CBC News the report's reference to the 1992 cod moratorium is a bold statement, but accurate.

"Based on where we're to from a standpoint of vaccinations and public health and safety, it's paramount of course, it's an opportunity for us.… It would be important for the operators to have those people coming from other jurisdictions other than the province," Davis said.

The council says the promotion of staycations last summer allowed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to gain a deeper appreciation of their own home.

But the report says business was still down and won't be sustainable if that model remains. The council also added that travel from inside the Atlantic bubble also wasn't substantial.

The council says the province's tourism industry needs access to more markets or risks devastation similar to the fishing industry in the 1992 cod moratorium. (Submitted by Cameron Gill)

"Our residents certainly heeded the message to shop local and supported our tourism businesses, but the reality is that we are not a big enough population to sustain our tourism industry," reads the report. 

"'Staycation' business in isolation cannot sustain the contribution the tourism industry makes to the provincial economy. Likewise, we did not experience a significant number of visitors from the Atlantic bubble in the 2020 season to make a significant contribution to our tourism industry."

Davis agreed.

"Although the province was great last year, it's not enough to sustain some of those businesses in the long term," he said.

"The report that came forward comes up with great solutions, in my mind, to support the industry opening in a safe manner.… Some of the recommendations deal with supports that we can do very quickly, some recommendations deal with budget requests that we're going to work on and some others are in public health that we're working on that closely with them as well." 

The groups says it recognizes that even as this province's vaccination plan is executed, public health measures will remain in place for a long time. It also acknowledges that the battered travel industry will result in a reduced volume of visitors this summer. 

"But in our economic forecasting we know even basing our number of non-resident visitors on a low- to medium-range recovery of our 2019 non-resident visitor numbers, we have the potential to contribute over $200 million to the province's GDP in 2021," the report reads.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn