Nova Scotia

Halifax waterfront businesses adjust to life without tourists

Halifax’s boardwalk is usually packed elbow-to-elbow with tourists coming off cruise ships eager to explore. Now business owners are hoping to make the best of a season potentially without tourists.

COVID-19 pandemic puts expansion plans on hold for 2 waterfront businesses

Sarah Craig, owner of I Heart Bikes in downtown Halifax, still expects to hire all her summer staff. Instead of her typical international customers, she believes locals will be eager to explore Halifax on a bicycle this summer. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Halifax's typically bustling boardwalk is slowly reopening, with business owners hoping to make the best of a season potentially without tourists because of COVID-19.

Sarah Craig, the owner and operator of I Heart Bikes, was hoping to do a big expansion this year. The company rents out bicycles by the hour.

"I started prepping my store in April and it was kind of just day by day, are we going to open, are we not going to open?" she said.

This is the 10th year the company will operate on the waterfront. In recent years, the company has thrived with bookings from international tourists wanting to do cycling trips around the province.

Without those clients, Craig worried the whole season was in question. But as she started working on the bikes at the store, more and more people dropped by.

The food vendors on the Halifax waterfront are setting up spacing markers as they get set to reopen for the summer. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"Almost every day I was down there working, people just kept saying, 'When are you opening? We're really glad to see you getting ready,'" she said.

Craig is now optimistic, and thankful that her business plan revolves around an activity that promotes physical distancing.

Just a short distance away from her shop, The Harbour Watercraft and Adventures has some Sea-Doos in the water.

The company, which rents out kayaks and jet skis, was also all set to expand this season after landing a three-year contract to set up on the water. They hoped to buy extra equipment and even a boat to rent to tourists wandering off cruise ships.

As the pandemic started, the owners, Omar Hassan and Ossama Nasrallah, realized they quickly needed to switch gears. They cancelled the order for the boat.

The Harbour Watercraft Tours and Adventures has its first few jet skis in the water. The company had hoped to expand this summer, but they're putting those plans on hold. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Instead, they'll focus on their smaller rentals and try to reach new, local clients.

"We are opening, and that's what matters," said Hassan. "Like everybody's saying, it's the new norm."

Hassan is seeing this as a cup half-full situation. While many businesses are scrambling to adjust, their watercraft rentals allow for physical distancing. Hassan is hoping people itching to get out of their homes will head to the water.

He said it was strange to see the usually packed waterfront empty as they started setting up.

There are signs along Halifax's boardwalk reminding people to keep their distance this summer. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"It was a bittersweet moment, mixed emotions definitely. We have to be grateful for what we have and how far we've come," Hassan said.

He said his company has a multi-step plan to make sure they do their part to keep everyone safe. There will be hand sanitizing stations set up before customers head down the dock. Only a limited number of people will be allowed access to the water level at a time.

He said they'll also clean the gear thoroughly between each rental. Their plan was approved by their landlord, Develop Nova Scotia.

"We could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's a very long tunnel, but we could see it," Hassan said.

The iconic Halifax Wave remains fenced off as people are being asked to keep their distance. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

At I Heart Bikes, without her typical long distance tours, Craig has added a new service to her company: repairs and tune-ups.

With the cycling industry booming during the pandemic, she's hopeful they'll benefit from that. She said the new safety measures have given her a push to improve the operations of the business.

All waivers now have to be signed online in advance and they're doing extra cleaning on all of the bikes. Craig said while the work will be different, she's relieved she should be busy enough to hire back all her staff.

"It's definitely not business as usual, but it's certainly enough that I feel like we're still going to be able to salvage our season," she said.