Nfld. & Labrador

Convention space, direct flights boost N.L. traffic stats

People who work in Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism industry say the numbers for 2016 are up, with more visitors arriving by air and by ferry.

Marine Atlantic traffic also up by 9 per cent over last year

Whale watching is one of the most popular activities for tourists, according to companies that cater to them. (Elaine Vickers)

People who work in Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism industry say the numbers for 2016 are up, with more visitors arriving by air and by ferry.

Minister of Tourism Christopher Mitchelmore said new direct flights to Europe have helped to boost air traffic to 1.1 million passengers by the end of June.

"That's a 2.3 per cent increase over last year," he told the St. John's Morning Show on Monday. "Marine Atlantic has seen increased movements as well, nine per cent over last year."

Passenger traffic is up this year on both the Port aux Basques and Argentia routes, according to Marine Atlantic.

St. John's has become a destination choice.- Cathy Duke

"From our perspective, we know that the trial discount campaign offered through Port aux Basques resulted in an increased number of bookings, but it also appears that the low Canadian dollar and price of gas has also had an impact on tourist traffic," said spokesman Darrell Mercer.

"Our peak travel period is approximately six weeks from late June to mid-August and we have seen increases in passenger numbers from both eastern Canada and the United States during that time."

'Destination choice'

In St. John's, a convention centre that's doubled in size is driving much of the spike in visitor numbers, according to Destination St. John's, which monitors hotel traffic.

Cathy Duke, the organization's CEO, said hotel numbers were up 15 per cent in June and seven per cent in July, compared with the same months last year.

The doubling in size of the St. John's convention centre has brought in a spike of visitors, according to Destination St. John's. (CBC)

Duke said there are "quite a few" new visitors from the United States and the United Kingdom, with direct flights from Gatwick, Heathrow and Dublin and the value of the American dollar and the Euro against the Canadian loonie all factors.

"St. John's has become a destination choice," she said, adding the outlook is bright with 400 to 500 convention planners set to visit the city in November, as well as the 2017 Tim Horton's Brier scheduled for March 2017.

Apart from conventions, Duke has noticed trends.

"Visitors are now taking shorter and more frequent vacations, mostly flying into St. John's or Deer Lake and renting a car," or hooking up with local companies that offer tours, she said.

They are also planning more online, and are looking for "experiences" that include food, hiking, wildlife and outdoor adventure.

'Strong year'

"Puffins and whales, and talking to the locals," are the most requested things from customers of Wildland Tours, according to the company's general manager Ann Simmons.

They want to be talking to that fisherman on the dock or that missus who makes the homemade bread.- Ann Simmons

Wildland Tours organizes seven-day custom tours of the Avalon, Burin and Bonavista peninsulas, as well as the Viking Trail, along with shore excursions for cruise ship passengers.

"We've had a strong year," said Simmons.

The company, which has been in business for 33 years, caters to tourists who fly in, and pick up customized bus tours. It also provides "step on" guides for other companies that offer shorter excursions.

Tourists love puffins, according to Wildland Tours, and also want the "authentic experience" of meeting local residents. (CBC)

"Whales are a huge part of what we do," said Simmons, and visitors also want to meet the people.

"They want to be talking to that fisherman on the dock or that missus who makes the homemade bread."

Jill Curran, owner of Maxxim Vacations, said the experience with people is the big takeway for vacationers, some of whom are staying longer or upgrading their accommodations this year because their dollar goes further.

It's not just St. John's, said Curran. "Gros Morne is having a fabulous year. I've talked to a number of operators who are sold out multiple nights, and Fogo of course."

Need for improvement

As for what needs improvement, tourists told CBC the condition of secondary roads and poor signage are issues.

The shortage of rental cars in summer is another beef, according to Destination St. John's. And this year, travel delays because of road construction are also an issue.

Mitchelmore, meanwhile, said it's something government is aware of.

"We do have a short season when it comes to construction, and there is a fair bit of construction happening on the Trans-Canada highway and other road networks, and we certainly apologize for any inconvenience," said Mitchelmore.

The government is doing an exit survey of visitors, and will use the feedback to plan for future years, he said.

Tourism operators in St. John's say the arrival of cruiseships in the fall will bring another flurry of activity. (CBC)

With files from St. John's Morning Show