Nfld. & Labrador

Hope remains for those who bet big on rural tourism in N.L. despite border closure to fight pandemic

As active cases of COVID-19 dwindle in Newfoundland and Labrador, the success of the province's pandemic measures will rely on keeping its borders closed to travellers from the outside. But some who have invested in the tourism industry remain hopeful, even though the borders will likely remain closed this summer.

People invested their livelihoods in places like Dildo and Salvage and could come up empty this year

Rocky Licari, the owner of Ocean Breeze Pub in Salvage, N.L., faces the possibility of drinking alone this summer as a ban on travellers from outside the province in place to fight the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the tourism industry. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

As Canada begins the slow process of reopening our economy, CBC News explores the financial and economic toll taken by the pandemic.

This is part of our examination of the hardest-hit regions and industries in the country, and a look to the path ahead. For more, this Wednesday, May 13, tune in to our live virtual town hall, Living With COVID: Your job, your money, your future.

We'll have it for you, commercial-free, on CBC News Network or CBC Gem at 7 p.m. ET and on CBC Radio One. Send your questions in advance to COVID@cbc.ca.

With views of jagged cliffs rising from the ocean floor and haphazard fishing stages clinging to the shoreline, Rocky Licari has an idyllic patio to enjoy a cold drink on a hot day.

This summer, however, he's facing the devastating possibility of drinking alone, as a ban on travellers from outside the province threatens the tourism industry.

"I put my life into this," he said, looking at the fresh renovations in the 118-year-old building housing his pub. "And now with the COVID, I'm behind an 8-ball."

Licari owns the Ocean Breeze Pub in the small coastal town of Salvage — a village on Newfoundland's Eastport Peninsula with 124 people in a region leaning on tourism since the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992.

It's easy to look at Salvage — a place where widows outnumber children by a factor of two — and say its best days are behind it, but there are people like Licari who bet their livelihoods on the future of tourism and hospitality in this quiet corner of Newfoundland.

Salvage is a small fishing community in eastern Newfoundland, located on the Eastport Peninsula near Terra Nova National Park. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

It's been 14 years since the day he came to Salvage and fell in love with the Ocean Breeze. He made it his goal that day to buy the place. He spent two years and thousands of dollars renovating the former Orange Lodge to get it to where it is today.

Was it a smart business decision?

"Absolutely not," Licari said. "But it's in my heart. It's in my soul. It's in my blood."

With the arrival of a global pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador, all those bets are now off.

No upswing in sight for tourism

Cases of COVID-19 have been declining in the province since April 6, and the once-dreaded daily updates from the chief medical officer of health are now celebrated as shutout streaks that stretch longer by the day.

Things are coming back — public parks and golf courses opened across the province on Monday, limits on funerals and weddings were doubled to 10 people and health-care facilities began working through the backlog of cancelled procedures.

As active cases in the province dwindle to around a dozen, the success of the province's pandemic measures will rely on keeping its borders closed to travellers from the outside.

That success will mean a crushing year for tourism and hospitality. An industry that regularly sees more than 500,000 visitors come to Newfoundland and Labrador each year will have zero tourists from outside its borders.

Terry Bradley makes furniture out of his shop in Eastport. He was contracted by Ottawa businessman Jeff Mierins to make furniture for a new development in Salvage. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

In his woodworking shop in nearby Eastport, Terry Bradley is building furniture for a remodelled fish processing plant in Salvage.

Eight night tables, six queen beds, a king and four large dressers, all made from locally harvested birch trees, will be delivered to the site by the end of the week.

"We guarantee our work," Bradley said. "It's something that will last you a lifetime, maybe more."

The fish plant itself did not come with the same guarantee.

An old fish plant in Salvage is seeing new life as work is underway to transform it into a brewery, restaurant and inn. Parts of it were expected to open to the public this summer. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

It was built in 2002 after the previous plant had burned to the ground a year earlier. It lasted only 10 years and was then sold for scrap to one of the more prominent merchants on the island.

The bare bones of the building were left behind to fend for themselves against nature. 

Now, an Ottawa millionaire has plans to turn it into a brewery and inn — another bet on the same kind of rugged hospitality that made nearby Fogo Island into a destination for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and celebrity weddings profiled in the pages of Vogue magazine.

With the arrival of COVID-19 came uncertainty for those plans, too.

Bradley will have the furniture ready for this season, but it's unknown if any travellers will be allowed to sleep in those beds before the winter comes and Salvage shuts down for another year.

It was our $11-million, free advertising campaign [Jimmy Kimmel] ran for us.- Angie Reid

Newfoundland and Labrador has adopted a tiered system for restarting life amid COVID-19.

Five levels dictate when malls, restaurants, movie theatres and more aspects of normal life can open again. The province moved from Level 5 to Level 4 on Monday, with a 28-day waiting period before moving further down the line.

Places like the Ocean Breeze could in theory be open to patrons by mid-June, with a reduced capacity and physical distancing measures in place, but nowhere in the guidelines does it mention inns and bed and breakfasts, where people tend to stay when visiting rural destinations.

Citizens are still being told to avoid non-essential travel and the rules around intraprovincial tourism remain undefined.

The Jimmy Kimmel experience

Long before physical distancing was common vernacular, Angie Reid knew she needed more space.

Her microbrewery, owned by a group in the Trinity Bay community of Dildo, was teeming with people like a school of fish in a gillnet last summer.

Angie Reid is a co-owner of the Dildo Brewing Company. The brewery expanded over the offseason in preparation for an influx of tourists this summer. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Dildo has long been known for its name, but in the last five years it has begun to use that name to capture worldwide attention while remaining dignified and staying above the low-lying puns — even when they come from celebrities.

Without asking for it, Dildo was thrown into the spotlight last August when late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel ran a tongue-in-cheek campaign for mayor.

The value of the exposure was pegged at a whopping figure by the province's tourism officials.

"It was our $11-million, free advertising campaign he ran for us," Reid said.

Local residents were on Jimmy Kimmel Live each night for a week, and the run of shows ended with a fireworks show and a Hollywood-style sign hanging over the community.

Jimmy Kimmel was drawn to Dildo because of the name, but promised to visit this summer after the town played along with his shenanigans last August. That visit is now on hold. (Jimmy Kimmel Live/YouTube)

For a week in August, Dildo was the hottest destination in a province filled with picture-perfect views. The brewery was in the middle of the mayhem, as thousands of people filled the tiny town.

Reid bought the land next to the Dildo Brewing Company and expanded the outdoor patio and deck in preparation for the explosion of American tourists the local business community expected to come from the Kimmel campaign.

She wasn't alone.

"We put a lot of preparation, a lot of time, a lot of money into the coming season based on the hype we had last summer," Reid said.

"We all have invested a lot into this community with the hopes of course that this season would have been a booming tourist season here."

Todd Warren owns George House Bed and Breakfast in Dildo. He's handling plenty of cancellations these days, but also hearing promises from American tourists who intend to rebook. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The only phone calls Todd Warren gets these days are cancellations.

Across the road from the brewery, Warren operates the historic George House Bed and Breakfast.

"Every day, I receive emails, phone calls, messages from people around the globe who were planning their trips. They've all been cancelled," he said.

While this level of uncertainty is unparalleled for the people who run these businesses, it's not so uncommon for the house itself.

The George House Bed and Breakfast sits on a hill overlooking the community of Dildo, about an hour from St. John's. (George House B&B/Twitter)

The original owner of George House lost everything in 1894 when the economy ground to a halt due to banks overlending to a troubled fishery. Two of the province's three banks collapsed, and it spelled the end of Newfoundland and Labrador's own currency.

This old house survived one disaster and Warren is intent on pulling it through another.

'Welcome mats are always out'

"Our welcome mats are always out and we'll have them out again this year, just for the people of our province," he said.

The momentum of the Kimmel experience is still there, he said, and they'll capitalize on it when they can.

WATCH | Newfoundland and Labrador tourism hit hard by COVID-19:

As active COVID-19 cases in the Newfoundland and Labrador dwindle, the success of the province's pandemic measures will rely on keeping its borders closed to travellers from the outside. That success will mean a crushing year for tourism and hospitality. 2:04

"We'll be fine. We still have Mr. Kimmel in our back pocket. He's a fun guy so I'm sure he'll be there to assist us in the future."

Kimmel, for his part, offered a comical response on Twitter to news that the community had cancelled its 40th annual Dildo Days celebration this summer because of the pandemic.

"Now this has gone too far," he wrote.

No moratorium on hope

Newfoundland and Labrador has grown its tourism sector to a $1.1-billion industry in the decades since the cod collapse.

This year will bring a sharp decline in visitors, but there's no shortage of positivity from the people whose very livelihoods are in jeopardy from a ban on tourists entering the province.

Dildo doesn't have a mayor to run the show. Instead, it's governed by a committee of elected volunteers who form what's called a local service district. 

Andrew Pretty sits on the committee for the local service district in Dildo. He also runs a boat tour business and was hoping to start a theatre company. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Andrew Pretty, one of the faces made famous on Kimmel last August, is one of those committee members. He also runs a boat tour in Dildo, and was planning to open a theatre company this summer with his wife and other townspeople.

That's probably not going to happen now, but Pretty is OK with that. New ideas will just have to wait.

"We know that we made our presence known last year throughout the world and throughout the United States more than usual. So I'm sure it will rebound at some point when this virus is under wraps," Pretty said.

"I'm sure it will all come back just as strong as we hoped."

Licari is still hanging onto hope he'll be able to scrape by with staycationers visiting Salvage from other areas of the province.

Even if it all goes wrong, he's determined to stick it out for at least 10 or 15 more years in the old wooden building with the beautiful view — no matter how poor a business decision that proves to be.

"We've got history here," he said.

WATCH | Rocky Licari says he has a plan to ensure his customers can enjoy his seaside patio while respecting social distancing rules:

Rocky Licari says he's ready to open up the outdoor patio of his seaside pub in the coastal Newfoundland town of Salvage but expects that COVID-19 restrictions will remain in place through the normally busy summer season. 2:41

Down the road, Bradley will deliver his furniture to the inn on schedule this week, even if schedules don't mean much these days. 

One of the reasons he decided to open his own business was so he could take time to step away from work and enjoy the sunny days around Salvage.

"But you have to make up for it somewhere along the line," Bradley said. "You have to make up for that day you took off. If you're into your work, you'll do that. You'll make up that day that you lost."

The rooms at the former fish plant in Salvage are coming together, but it remains to be seen when they can be filled with travellers. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.

With files from Anthony Germain

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