Nova Scotia

Visit from COVID-19 likely to cost N.S. tourism more than $1B

Tourism operators are preparing for a season as bleak as any they've seen in recent memory as COVID-19 reduces travel and marketing options.

Businesses are in survival mode as marketing shifts to within Nova Scotia

Music fans gather at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in 2015. The festival was recently cancelled for this year due to COVID-19. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

In a typical year, Wes Surrett would be welcoming back the core group of staff at the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort.

Housekeeping and maintenance staff would be prepping the main building and cottages for guests. The chef would be building a menu.

"If we were opening for the long weekend in May, this is the week that we had scheduled to bring everybody back and start to dust the old girl off and get going again," said Surrett, the site's general manager.

But the resort, which employs up to 70 people each year, won't be opening for the Victoria Day weekend. Its business in June is uncertain and Surrett still isn't sure what to tell staff.

It's clear to him and everyone else connected to the Nova Scotia tourism industry that this will be anything but a normal season because of an unwanted guest.

Like many people in the industry, Surrett has spent the last two months making and remaking plans in an effort to eke out some kind of season this year, while also acknowledging the nearly impossible situation created by the presence of COVID-19.

Revenue in 2019 was $2.6B

There's no way to know what public health guidelines will look like this summer, making it difficult for sites such as Pictou Lodge to know what will be possible in terms of weddings and other large gatherings. Lodge management doesn't know how many tables it can have in the restaurant or how many guests it can accommodate at any given time.

"If this season is a break-even season and we don't make one dime, that will be a great-news story," said Surrett.

Tourism is a major part of Nova Scotia's economy and officials expect it to take a massive hit this year as a result of the pandemic.

Tourism Nova Scotia officials say the industry creates 39,000 jobs and revenue from the sector in 2019 was $2.64 billion.

Michele Saran, the Crown corporation's CEO, said Tourism Nova Scotia is preparing for a number of possibilities whenever public health orders begin to ease, but all of the scenarios have the industry bracing for a loss of at least $1 billion in 2020.

"What we're learning here is what Destination Canada is saying, that we're looking at anywhere from a 40 per cent hit in revenue to an 80 per cent hit," said Saran.

Some businesses may not open

The Red Shoe Pub is bracing for the worst. The landmark establishment in Mabou is known as much for musical offerings as anything on its menu or taps.

But in a world with physical distancing, it's difficult to imagine how customers and staff can pack into the pub while musicians play an arm's length away, said general manager Angie Smith.

Smith said the pub could consider opening if things go really well and public health restrictions are lifted in July, but any later wouldn't make sense because the season isn't long enough.

"We're gonna see how it goes, and if we can open, and it would work out financially to do that, then we would do so for sure. But if not, we'll open with a bang for sure in 2021."

At the opposite end of the province, Jonathan Joseph already knows how it feels to look ahead to the next tourism season before the current one is finished.

Last summer, Joseph, who runs The Argyler Lodge in Argyle, and the rest of the tourism operators in and around Yarmouth County, weathered a season with no ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine.

This was supposed to be the summer that things rebounded.

"The thing that's going to put pressure on us down here is a lot of us probably went through whatever cash buffer we had last year," said Joseph. "So it's going to make it difficult for people down here, I think."

The Cat is supposed to begin sailing between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor at the end of June, but COVID-19 is creating uncertainty for the season. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Like Surrett, Joseph is waiting to see what the summer means for his wedding business.

But he hasn't waited to adapt. The Argyler has been selling sandwiches at local convenience stores and offering takeout and delivery service from its kitchen to keep paying the bills.

Joseph has also turned to a more local focus for marketing. While in previous years his business has been split evenly between Canadian and international travellers, this year Joseph will rely far more on Nova Scotians travelling within the province.

Tourism Nova Scotia is headed in the same direction.

Saran said marketing that normally targets Ontario, Quebec, the northeastern United States and other countries is being shelved in favour of getting people in Nova Scotia to explore their own province. That initiative could expand to people in New Brunswick and P.E.I. if it makes sense based on public health orders.

"We're hearing that people are going to have much more of a reticence about travelling long haul, so we're hoping that those in our neighbouring Maritime provinces will want to get away and they'll see us as close and safe and do those little short-haul trips."

Government evaluating what help is needed

Just about every avenue that brings tourists to the province has been affected by COVID-19.

The cruise ship season has been suspended until at least July 1; the ferry between Nova Scotia and P.E.I. is delayed until at least the beginning of June; air service is drastically reduced; and the ferry between Nova Scotia and Maine, scheduled to begin at the end of June, is advising that the pandemic could affect the season.

Business Minister Geoff MacLellan said he's concerned about what kind of a hit the industry will take.

"It doesn't look good," he said.

"We're worried. The best we can do is engage and communicate with the sector and plan as best we can. Some of it will be creative, some of it will be just real targeted investment, but there's a lot of work and planning to do."

MacLellan said government support for the sector would be determined once they have a sense of how COVID-19 affects operators and employees through the season.

'A life-and-death struggle'

The support is going to be vital for festivals and venues, said Troy Greencorn, the artistic director of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso. He is also executive director of the deCoste Performing Arts Centre in Pictou.

Stanfest recently cancelled this year's festival and the deCoste Centre, which has 400 seats, has been cancelling bookings ever since public health orders put restrictions on gatherings.

One of the big challenges for the performing arts is it was one of the first parts of the sector affected by COVID-19 and it will be one the last to get back to normal, said Greencorn.

"For many organizations, it's really going to be a life-and-death struggle and really what's going to carry the day will be whether there is government support at all levels to help us get through it."

The loss of festivals is particularly significant for small towns, said Greencorn. In the case of Stanfest, it brings 3,000 people each year to Canso and generates $3.6 million for the province, a big part of which falls to Guysborough County.

"For many of the businesses in that community, it is by far the biggest couple of weeks of their year."

'It's going to be really tough'

The deCoste centre, meanwhile, is struggling to determine when it should try to rebook cancelled performances.

"There's a lot of discussion around the fact that for many in the performing arts it will be well into 2021 before larger gatherings will be able to be held," said Greencorn.

Just a few kilometres down the road from the deCoste, Surrett is just trying to find a way to get through this summer.

Warm, sunny weather is fleeting in Nova Scotia, and few people know that better than the ones whose livelihood relies on it.

"A resort like ours, we make all of our money through July and August — a little bit in September — and you try to pack enough of that away to keep the lights on until the following spring when you go again," he said.

"If we're not getting open and operating until that later time, it's going to be really tough."

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton

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