Nova Scotia

COVID-19 crushes Nova Scotia's tourism season

Predictions for the effect COVID-19 could have on the Nova Scotia tourism industry this year proved to be every bit as bad as feared.

Revenues for 2020 are down 65 per cent as operators fear for their future

A dismal tourism season led to the early shutdown of the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses this year. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

February was a big month for Grant Haverstock.

The co-owner of Iron Mountain Wilderness Cabins in Cape Breton, N.S., said that less than a year into their business they were already starting to see success with the four-season tourist attraction, which was benefiting at the time from its proximity to snowmobile trails.

"Business was booming," Haverstock said in an interview Friday. "The cabins were all booked, the pub was hopping. February was awesome."

The next month was not, courtesy of the most unwanted of arrivals in Nova Scotia: COVID-19.

Revenues down from $2.6 billion to $900 million

Like a lot of tourism operators, Haverstock and his wife had to refund reservations and now find themselves deeply in debt and high on uncertainty.

All across the province, members of one of Nova Scotia's most lucrative sectors are trying to figure out how to — or if they even can — adjust to a tourism industry that's seen droves of potential clients sidelined by COVID-19 and the disease's related effects on travel.

The cruise ship season was cancelled, business and convention travel dried up, airline traffic all but disappeared and anyone from outside Atlantic Canada who wants to come here must spend their first 14 days in quarantine. The effects have been dire.

Coming into the season, financial modelling by Tourism Nova Scotia showed the industry could take a hit of at least $1 billion due to the pandemic. That prediction has proved accurate. A year after the sector posted $2.6 billion in revenues, it is on track this year for about $900 million.

The situation caused some businesses not to open at all this year, while others packed it in early, including the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses in Inverness.

"It's indicative of where we are and how bad this is," said Business Minister Geoff MacLellan.

Business Minister Geoff MacLellan says his department is working on relief efforts for the tourism industry. (Robert Short/CBC)

The minister said the province knows operators are hurting. Many restaurants continue to struggle with reduced traffic as a result of public health guidelines, fewer people going out to eat, people working from home and fewer tourists being around. Hotels, particularly in the Halifax area, are seeing staggering reductions in bookings, with some sites operating at not much higher than 20 per cent occupancy.

"We're going to have to help and all options are still on the table," said MacLellan.

That help could include a $50-million fund being administered by Dalhousie University. A spokesperson for MacLellan's department said the Nova Scotia COVID Response Council is meeting to determine what to do with that money, although Premier Stephen McNeil and MacLellan have both indicated a desire to see at least some of it go to larger tourism operators.

MacLellan said he's fully prepared for people in the tourism sector to need even more help and said the province will do what it can.

Anna Moran, the director of research and policy for Tourism Nova Scotia, said the Crown corporation is shifting its marketing to target people who are willing to travel in and to Nova Scotia in an attempt to extend the tourism season in some measure through autumn and winter.

"We know right now that any visitor is a good visitor," she said. "What we're doing now is to maximize the potential that is in arguably a limited pool of travellers."

Along with those new marketing efforts, which will focus predominantly on the Atlantic provinces, Moran said the organization is also working with the sector to help determine how it can adjust in what is expected to be an uncertain time for the foreseeable future.

'We could end up losing everything'

There have been some bright spots, particularly in rural areas, thanks to staycations, said MacLellan.

The Pictou Lodge delayed its opening by a month until mid June, and that was only after the Atlantic bubble was announced. General manager Wes Surrett said even with the public health restrictions, the lodge saw better numbers than expected for July and August, likely a combination of its ability to offer spread-out outdoor activities and its proximity to P.E.I.

"It was not a typical season by any means," he said. "But it was much, much better than anticipated."

It all adds up to being enough to ensure the lodge will be back for next season, but Surrett said challenges remain. Traffic has all but dried up this month, with the usual European and American travellers unable to visit, and the site only hosted two weddings this season compared to the usual 30.

For Haverstock and many other operators, however, the future is much less certain. They need help, and they need it soon, he said.

"We're not even making enough to make our mortgage [payments] and we've got everything on the line. We could end up losing everything."