Who will get to visit Twillingate this year? Tourism operators fret over the answer
Hoteliers, restaurateurs depend on Ontario visitors
As the first icebergs float by Twillingate's Long Point lighthouse — firing the unofficial starting gun for the town's tourism season — operators are facing dozens of questions about how their businesses can operate.
Chief among them: who will get to visit Twillingate this year?
Phones have already started ringing with callers looking to book rooms this summer, but it's still not clear whether COVID-19 border restrictions will relax enough to bring the lucrative Ontario market back into play.
The question means there's still uncertainty about how the town's businesses should go about marketing and pricing their products — and some are wondering if there's any path to profit at all.
"Seventy-five per cent of our business here is people from Ontario," said Ernie Watkins, owner of the Twillingate-New World Island Dinner Theatre.
"Ontario is our hub, and without Ontario, our businesses here aren't going to function right. They can't."
Government statistics back him up: A study of visitors in the 2016 tourism season showed that a family from Ontario spent an average of $3,750 during a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador, over a thousand dollars more than a party from the Maritime provinces.
"Ontario and Alberta and Quebec … that's where the money is," added Deborah Bourden, who owns the Anchor Inn hotel, along with two other accommodations businesses, in Twillingate.
"I saw that, for instance, in my gift shop this past summer. People would still come in and do coffee and the treats that were there … but for the most part, as a Newfoundlander, you're not taking back souvenirs from Newfoundland."
Time for a plan
A Canada-wide reopening was a key part of an interim report written by the premier's advisory council on tourism in March.
It called for a July 1 open-for-business date, and suggested opening to vaccinated Canadians by April 10.
But Premier Andrew Furey was cool to the idea, saying at the time he wants to move slowly.
Bourden says it's time to put together a plan for what reopening would look like, even if that reality is far away. She said she's not looking to prioritize business over public safety and health, but is trying to find a new path in light of vaccine rollout and other developments.
"We have to look at this, and if we're not prepared, if we at least don't have a thoughtful plan, then I don't know how we're ever going to get there," she said. "I don't think we can just throw the doors open, and say, 'Come on, b'ys!' I don't think it's as simple as that."
For proof, she points to the fact that airlines have cut many routes to Newfoundland and Labrador over the past year, and those planes won't be immediately ready for takeoff if a switch is flipped in July.
"People don't just decide today and come tomorrow. We are an off-the-beaten-path destination," she said.
Though the Atlantic bubble provided a welcome push to many tourism businesses in Twillingate, Watkins said it wasn't nearly enough for him to turn a profit last year.
He said his revenues were roughly one-third of what they were in 2019.
And if operators are again going to be facing another Atlantic bubble or staycation summer, Watkins says they need to start co-operating to boost those numbers — and maybe look for additional government intervention.
"We need a stronger approach to market within the Atlantic bubble, without a doubt," he said.
"Affordability on the ferry services, that's a big, big thing. Because I think that really got out of reach in the last five to six years. The government should really come out with some assistance for the ferry services, and then we'll draw that Atlantic bubble. Without that, I don't think we're going to make it."
Otherwise, he says, the industry in Twillingate is headed for disaster. He says there's just no way to cut enough costs to turn a profit, if revenues stay down at roughly 30 per cent.
"I've been talking to a lot of B&B owners here, and a lot of them this year don't think they are even going to try," he said, adding that business closures will have long-term consequences.
"Are we going to lose that five or six million dollars' worth of infrastructure?"
The future here
But at least one business owner is doubling down. Chris Scott, who owns a B&B, restaurant and boat tour business in Twillingate is opening a new tap room addition to his business this year, after initially shelving the plan for 2020.
"We're really committed to tourism in Twillingate. I grew up in Twillingate, me and my wife grew up in Twillingate, we're really proud of Twillingate and we really believe in the tourism product," he said.
"If you've got a long term plan, I mean, this is just a big bump in the road. It's a big bump in the road, but you know what? We see a future here and we want to continue on."
Like everyone else, Scott didn't make as much money last year. He also acknowledges that many businesses can't last another year or two at 30 per cent of revenue.
Still though, he calls the Atlantic bubble experiment a success.
"You got to try to find positives in everything, and the positive I found in it is just that we had so many people from around the province come to Twillingate, never been to Twillingate before, they got an opportunity to look at my product and I was more then happy to show my product."
Scott says there's a natural beauty in Twillingate that gives the town's business a big advantage, no matter when borders reopen and vacationers start flowing in.
On that point, he and Watkins and Bourden agree.
"We have a very unique thing here in Newfoundland, you just can't get this all over Canada," he said.
"The tourism industry in Newfoundland, I really do strongly believe, is going to be better when we come out of this, even better than when we before. We've learned so much. We understand the quality that we need to put forward. We had such a high-quality product before the pandemic. We're just going to be better when we come out of this."