Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. launches Stay Home Year campaign, but gaps in Labrador are daunting

With the summer tourism season missing its swarms of out-of-province travellers, the province hopes a new marketing campaign encourages locals to fill the void.

Expensive flights and closed attractions big challenges for the Big Land

The provincial government lit up Cabot Tower Tuesday night to kick off its Stay Home Year 2020 campaign. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government hopes a new staycation marketing campaign will encourage locals to fill the out-of-province tourism gap this summer, although those in the Labrador tourism industry aren't overly optimistic it will salvage the season.

As darkness descended over St. John's on Tuesday night, Cabot Tower on Signal Hill lit up with the word "Home," kicking off the province's Stay Home Year campaign.

"Restrictions have eased, so the call to action is simple: get out and explore the place we love, and call home," said Bernard Davis, the tourism minister.

The province enters Alert Level 2 on Thursday, allowing more businesses to open and for freer movement.

But with the Canada-U.S. border closed until at least July 21, and Canadian tourists from outside Newfoundland and Labrador still banned — although expectations of an Atlantic bubble continue to grow — those in the Big Land say the summer season looks grim, and has for a while.

"Half of your market, from the U.S. and overseas, is completely gone, at least for the foreseeable future. That's had a significant impact on business models and traffic volumes expected this summer," said Randy Letto, the executive director of Destination Labrador.

Attractions like Battle Harbour and Torngat Mountains National Park are not open to visitors this year. Red Bay National Historic Site's visitor centre still has no update on reopening. The site that normally sees about 10,000 visitors a year, 75 per cent of whom aren't local, said Letto.

"It's a challenge to replace that market with anything else but people who are coming to the country, coming to the province for the first time," he told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.

Battle Harbour, a top attraction in southern Labrador, isn't opening in 2020. (Submitted by Crystal Rumbolt)

'Tough and expensive'

Letto did point to staycation opportunities, particularly with friend and relative visits between Newfoundland and hubs like Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City.

But as one travel agent knows all too well, interprovincial air travel has become extremely challenging, as Air Canada has cut back its services to the region, as has PAL Airlines.

People are still very reluctant to travel, and very much aware of the risks.- Randy Letto

"The Labrador region has always been tough and expensive to work with, and now it's even more trying and difficult because of the situation that we're faced with," said Jeff Hollett, who co-owns Mokami Travel in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Hollett said booking flights means piecing together different flights between Air Canada, WestJet and PAL Airlines, driving up the cost. Added to that, PAL's few flights to the island are fairly full.

"Finding space on short notice has become challenging, and also unfortunately with short notice generally equals higher cost. We have some clients who are very frustrated, and others are rolling with the punches, as the saying goes," he said.

Hollett wonders how more of his clients can even attempt staycations with the current travel restrictions.

"They are frustrated with the lack of options that we have, and on the other foot if our provincial government isn't letting anyone into the province besides residents, how can airlines fly a quarter full, with airlines trying to earn money as well?" he said.

"I can see both sides of the spectrum. It's frustrating for everyone."

Long-term rebuilding

Uncertainty abounds in the Newfoundland and Labrador tourism industry this year, but both Letto and Hollett think that one thing is clear.

"It's going to take a long time for the industry to bounce back," said Hollett.

"I really feel it's going to take years, not months," said Letto.

An iceberg is spotted in southern Labrador. Randy Letto, the executive director of Destination Labrador, says the Big Land's natural beauty will still be there to welcome tourists as the industry rebuilds. (Submitted by Jackie Dawe)

While Letto called the Stay Home Year "a great campaign," many tourism operators will have to overhaul their businesses to fit the new normal, if such a thing can even be identified. He pointed to popular motorcoach tours, which cannot possibly operate at previous levels while maintaining physical distancing, as one area that will take time to bounce back.

And that doesn't take into account tourists' own attitudes.

"People are still very reluctant to travel, and very much aware of the risks," said Letto.

One silver lining to Letto is that the pristine wilderness and adventure experiences Labrador has to offer are unchanged, and will be waiting to welcome visitors back in the years ahead.

Both the federal and provincial governments have identified the challenges facing tourism operators this year. Prior to its Stay Home Year announcement, the province set aside $25 million to help operators. 

The Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency announced Monday its own spending package, giving tourism marketing organizations in the province almost $550,000.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning

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