Nfld. & Labrador

N.L.'s tourism industry devastated by COVID-19, with no end to restrictions in sight

Tourism season in Newfoundland and Labrador is just beginning, and the financial losses are already staggering, with more hits almost certain to come.

Cancellations are pouring in, with physical distancing measures still in effect

Whales and icebergs, like the one pictured here near St. Anthony in 2018, are popular tourist draws every year, but this season is poised to be one of the harshest ones due to the COVID-19 virus. (Paul Alcock, Northland Discovery Boat Tours)

Hotels, whale-watching operations and bus operators are just some of the businesses in the province's $1-billion tourism industry that has been hit by cataclysmic losses related to COVID-19.

Cathy Duke, CEO of Destination St. John's, a tourism marketing non-profit organization, said the impacts are far-reaching and have a domino effect, with businesses affecting each other. 

"It really has been catastrophic," said Duke, noting the tourism sector employs about 20,000 people in all nooks and crannies across the province. 

Over half a million people visit the province each year spending millions in hotels, restaurants, shops, bars and other places, but now in the early part of the traditional tourist season business has already come to a grinding halt. 

Duke said there are normally 95 to 100 conferences in St. John's annually, bringing about 25,000 delegates into the province. The meetings and conferences are worth $40 million to $50 million to the economy, she said.

Duke said half of this season's conferences are either cancelled or postponed, and organizers of those remaining have not yet decided what they'll do with their events.

Destination St. John's CEO Cathy Duke says several hotels are closed in St. John's. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The loss in conference bookings will also hurt other tourism operations, said Duke, as conference delegates are responsible for about 30,000 hotel room bookings each year. 

Several hotels have already closed temporarily due to the pandemic, including the Hilton Garden Inn, Murray Premises, Courtyard by Marriott, DoubleTree by Hilton and the Sheraton, all of which are in St. John's.

"Unfortunately our hotels are operating in very low occupancy right now, for those who haven't closed. They're probably two to five per cent occupancy," she said.

'Hard on the nerves'

The season looks bleak for Parsons & Sons, a motor coach tour operator, according to account manager Krista Pitcher. Her grandfather started the company in 1962.

Half of the June bookings are cancelled, so far, and some for July and even one in August, she said. Pitcher estimates they have $500,000 in losses on the books now, and expects them to climb to over $1 million.

Normally, this time of year, the business is hiring an additional 30 people to staff up for the busy summer season.

"There is a high chance that we're not going to have enough business to keep our regular tour drivers behind the wheel," she said.

Parsons & Sons purchased four new buses in the last four years. Now the company is worried about surviving the pandemic. (Submitted by Parsons and Sons)

The company bought four new buses over the last four years to meet growing demand, which has now dried up. She said without revenue from the summer season, she's worried the family company might not see the next year.

"The fact that a virus could potentially crush us, that's hard on the nerves and it's very hard on the heart," said Pitcher.

If Parsons and Sons isn't there to bring busloads of tourists around the province, there is a domino effect.

"There's that small mom-and-pop shop, the chocolate shop, a lot of these people aren't going to get hardly any business for the summer and it's going to devastate them. It could be insurmountable to a lot of these companies," she said.

'We hope to get to the future'

O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tours in Bay Bulls normally hits the water May 1. 

The family business operates three vessels for whale and bird watching, three shuttle buses, two gift shops, and a restaurant employing more than 30 people. 

But since the pandemic hit, Transport Canada has prohibited commercial marine vessels from non-essential activities, like tourism, until the end of June. 

Joe O'Brien says between 30,000 and 40,000 people are ferried around the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve each summer to see puffins and whales.

"That's changed right now, because instead of doing bookings, they're doing cancellations and refunds," said O'Brien.

New Gower Street was practically devoid of traffic on a Friday night in late March, when traffic would normally be bumper to bumper. (Paul Daly)

O'Brien expects big losses and says they'll need help to keep going.

"It's not easy in a short-term seasonal operation to secure financing. But if you have longevity and a good track record of paying taxes, and being a responsible business owner, we hope to get to the future," said O'Brien. 

A new marketing plan

In what is a sign of the times, Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism and Destination Canada have pulled all of its advertising, said Duke.

She's hoping for a recovery plan and a domestic marketing campaign to bring tourists back to the province once the pandemic is over.

"I think that's good for us here in Newfoundland Labrador, because we've traditionally had a very high percentage of our visitors that have come from Canada," she said.

Still, she says everyone needs to prepare for a different style of travel once borders reopen and people start travelling again. 

"I think that travellers will be thinking about cleanliness and safety and space and social distancing."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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