After sparse summer, Cape Breton tourism operators brace for fall
'By and large most operators have had a very challenging season'
In a typical summer, Cape Breton's Cabot Trail is a busy spot.
The Cape Breton Highlands National Park sees well over 100,000 visitors. Restaurants and campgrounds are packed. The Skyline Trail has so many visitors it needs overflow parking.
But, amid a global pandemic, this summer was different.
The Highlands National Park saw about 40,000 visitors this summer, which is less than a normal shoulder season. Many restaurants, campgrounds and other tourism operations are closing early.
"There is a small minority that have actually had decent seasons like cottages and glamping operators, some of our outdoor operators, but by and large most operators have had a very challenging season," said Terry Smith, CEO of Destination Cape Breton.
That poses a challenge for seasonal operators in particular as they rely on a strong summer and fall to make ends meet over the winter.
Smith said some operators are closing earlier than normal because they aren't making enough money. Some don't expect to see much traffic in October, particularly because Celtic Colours International Festival is digital this year.
The early closures also complicate marketing the island. "It certainly is a challenge," said Smith.
Destination Cape Breton has started its autumn advertising campaign and Smith hopes Atlantic Canadians make the trek to see the fall colours. Anyone looking to come to Cape Breton is being advised to call establishments ahead of time before making plans.
Some Cape Breton tourism operators believe there are some bright spots in all of this.
"We're seeing more local visitors, more Cape Bretoners, more Nova Scotians and more Atlantic Canadians than we usually see," said Kelly Deveau, visitor experience manager at Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The majority of visitors to the park are usually from Ontario and Quebec and most are first time visitors. Deveau said she was heartened to hear stories from Atlantic Canadians who were happy to get out and explore their own area.
Ton Megens, the owner of the Dancing Moose Café and Cabins near Wreck Cove, said his cabins have been full most nights.
"The café was a little down because we had to limit the tables," said Megens. "All in all it was a little quieter."
That trend is continuing into the fall. Even without a usual Celtic Colours, Megens said his cabins are starting to fill up with people looking to check out the fall colours.
No trouble with bubble
Despite the low tourist numbers, some operators still want the Atlantic bubble to stay in place.
Greg Larocque and his wife own the Cornerstone Motel in Chéticamp and are part of the Chéticamp Area Registered Lodging Association. He said all of his customers cancelled their May and June bookings and the first customers to keep their their bookings came July 1.
"We saw a large following on Friday, Saturday, and sometimes on a Sunday, but usually not," said Larocque.
"When it came to weekdays, weekdays were very weak."
Most of Larocque's visitors are from Ontario, Europe and the United States. With travel restrictions in place, his visitors were mostly from Nova Scotia with some from other Atlantic provinces.
But Larocque said he and his fellow Chéticamp area operators aren't interested in popping the bubble just yet.
"Even though their year may have been very poor, they're willing to let that go because the chance of actually bringing something into the province… that would be very detrimental to our area, which is an area of more senior people," said Larocque.
He believes if the bubble were to open, it wouldn't necessarily mean more business. He believes Nova Scotians, particularly seniors, might cancel their bookings and choose to stay home in fear for their safety.
Nova Scotia has one of the oldest populations in the country.
Larocque would like to see more provincial and federal support for seasonal businesses. That's something that is being echoed by Destination Cape Breton.
Smith said the federal government's interest-free loan of $40,000 was a help to many operators, but he said some businesses have lost more than that in revenue.