Nfld. & Labrador

Whales will come, but will tourists? Uncertainty in N.L. tourism business grows

Whale-watching tour company owners say June bookings have been cancelled.

Whale-watching tour company owners say June bookings cancelled

A sperm whale's tail dips below the surface as the sun sets in Trinity Bay. (Kris Prince/Submitted)

Whales will make their way to breach and flap their tails in Newfoundland and Labrador waters this summer, that is certain. What's unknown, because of the coronavirus pandemic, is if tourists will be here to see them.

If you're in the business of taking visitors whale watching — like Shawna Prince and her husband Kris, who own Sea of Whales tour company in Trinity — this is a stressful period.

"There's so many unanswered questions and I'm someone who's a planner. I like to have a plan. I like to know where I'm going," said Prince.

Right now they're not going anywhere near the ocean in Newfoundland. The Princes are in Alberta, where they travel every winter to work, Kris as a welder and Shawna as a teacher.

While they're living on the other side of the country, they still tune in for the daily medical briefings here in Newfoundland and Labrador to see how the disease is progressing.

Their plan is to fly back in early May. That's a month when the whale-watching business is unpredictable at the best of times depending on whales and icebergs, so Shawna Prince isn't sure what their business losses will be for that period.

Shawna and Kris Prince operate Sea of Whales whale watching tours in Trinity, N.L. The couple work in Alberta during the winter and return to Newfoundland every season to cater to tourists. (Paul Dolk/Submitted)

She does know now that efforts to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19 have completely flattened their June profits.

"We do have a lot of cancellations. We're seeing a lot of cancellations from travel groups, so nobody traveling on buses altogether and things like that," said Prince. 

Tourists who've booked for July and August are, so far, holding out hope, according to Prince.

But she worries about the long term. Provincial Health Minister John Haggie has said Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be living with the virus for the next 18 months to two years.

"Even if they were to relax travel, I mean, will people feel safe enough to travel? There's going to be fear and there's going to be anxiety with respect to those kinds of things and travel for fun," said Prince. 

Like Sea of Whales, most of the businesses in Trinity rely on tourism dollars. Prince said the group of owners in the community have been discussing the situation and supporting each other online.

"I think there's a lot of fear. We worry about our employees for sure. And so, if we're not able to open, what happens to them?" said Prince.

"It's really difficult to think that we may not be able to operate at all this season and, well, maybe not next year either."

Whales and icebergs normally draw thousands of tourists to Newfoundland and Labrador. There is growing uncertainty about how tourism will proceed this year amid the coronavirus. (Submitted by Kris Prince)

Their love of whales is what brought Prince and her husband together and what led them to start a whale-watching business.

Even if tourists don't come this season, Prince, who is an environmental scientist, said they'll continue their work on the water tracking whales, photographing their tails and collecting audio of whale communication for Memorial University. 

She said getting back to nature in a quieter way might actually be a blessing in all of this uncertainty.

"I have no idea what's happening or when it's happening and maybe that's a life lesson learned right there, that I need to roll more with the punches, I guess."

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Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.