Nfld. & Labrador

Gros Morne a 'ghost town' amid pandemic, but staycations offering a ray of hope for businesses

While many major hotels and restaurants didn't bother opening this summer in Rocky Harbour and Norris Point, some businesses are making money from tourists from St. John's.

Tourists from St. John's are spending money at adventure tourism businesses in Gros Morne National Park

Kristen Hickey wears a mask while helping clients into their kayaks. She says Gros Morne Adventures is busy this summer with staycationers from St. John's. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

Ten tourists from St. John's zip on their life-jackets and slip into kayaks at the waterfront of adventure tourism company Gros Morne Adventures.

The company decided to market to the Newfoundland and Labrador tourist this summer — and it's working.

"I don't think we were expecting to be this busy," said Robbie Hickey, who, with his wife, Kristen, owns Gros Morne Adventures.

"We are understaffed at the moment. We are all working a few extra hours to make that happen and provide that experience for people all over the province."

The company offers daily guided kayaking tours, paddleboard rentals and Zodiac tours of the area, all offered with COVID-19 safety measures in place. 

Robbie and Kristen Hickey, who own Gros Morne Adventures, are using social media to market their business. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Tourists from St. John's are showing up every day. 

"On a busy weekend, we have three or four morning tours going out," said Kristen Hickey, owner of Gros Morne Adventures. 

2021 bookings

"This year, with the marine adventures, we have this beachfront property in Norris Point and we are so fortunate that we do. Most of our adventures are outdoors. We are only indoors for the café that we run."

Although the waterfront looks busy, the company's larger moneymaker isn't running at all this season.

Gros Morne Adventures offers a weeklong guided tour package that includes daily hikes, accommodations and eating at local fine dining restaurants.

Popular hotels and restaurants like Java Jacks in Rocky Harbour didn't bother opening this year because of the low number of visitors to Gros Morne National Park. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

"That clientele is from outside the Atlantic bubble. We are not seeing any of that business so far this year," said Robbie Hickey.

Some of those clients are still waiting to cancel their reservations, hoping to visit Gros Morne National Park later in the summer or early fall.  

Some of the bigger clients from the United States and United Kingdom have already booked their weeklong stays for 2021.

With health and safety Park Canada's top priorities, the visitor centre is closed to the public as well as several campsites and hiking trails.

There is also a ban on all back-country camping for 2020, which greatly affects the outdoor adventure business.

Not all operators are seeing the same boost, though. Colin Shears laments the emptiness of the Rocky Harbour from the patio of his Out East Adventures business.

"[Normally] you'd have 100 people by the water. It's a happening place. This year, it's a ghost town."

Colin Shears, who owns Out East Adventures in Rocky Harbour, says his business has taken a huge hit because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Many restaurants, businesses and hotels did not bother opening this tourism season because of the extreme low number of tourists visiting Gros Morne National Park.

Shears normally runs hiking tours to the scenic Western Brook Pond. With the park's strict COVID guidelines and the lack of boat tours, Shears can't operate that part of his business, so he is now putting all his focus into his 20-room hostel.

 "The goal is to get people to the national park on a budget. If you can't afford a $200 hotel room, just get a $30 dorm room. I"m trying to make the place more accessible to a younger generation," he said.

Tonight, three of the 20 beds are occupied.  

This is a brand new room at Colin Shear's hostel in Rocky Harbour. He increased his accommodations but he's seeing very few guests this summer. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

"It's not great. There's not a lot I can do. We are not the only ones hit. Everyone is experiencing the same thing. I just hope I can pay my insurance off for the year," he said.

Shears decided to keep his hostel and storefront open for the season to encourage provincial travel. 

"Newfoundlanders usually make up about five per cent of our business in a regular year. With the focus on staycation, that is helping. Maybe that's doubled, even tripled, but that's still only 15 per cent of what we would do in a regular year."

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