P.E.I.'s ease-back plan leaves questions for tourism operators

P.E.I.'s plan to ease back from COVID-19 restrictions does not include a date for when non-residents might be allowed to vacation on P.E.I., leaving tourism operators wondering what to do about bookings, and whether they'll have a season.

No date for easing border restrictions, leaving operators to wonder about bookings

The Inn at St. Peters offers guests a view of beautiful St. Peters Bay. This season the inn has pushed back its opening date, and may yet do so again. (Submitted by Inn at St. Peters)

From the veranda at the Inn at St. Peters, guests from around the world have enjoyed the spectacular view of the sun setting over St. Peters Bay, or watched crews on mussel boats down below on the water bring in their daily harvest.

But those guests have been cancelling their bookings this year, with more cancellations to come and no date yet put forward as to when anyone who's not from P.E.I. might once again be allowed to stay at the inn or enjoy the view.

Karen Milligan, who's operated the Inn at St. Peters for 21 years now, says she can't sustain her business relying on locals to choose to spend a staycation there.

"I can't see where that's feasible for a property such as mine," she said.

"With over 40 per cent of my business from the [United] States, and the majority of my business from off-Island, not knowing when that bridge will open up is really important to me."

The P.E.I. government unveiled a four-stage plan to ease back COVID-19 restrictions Tuesday.

Opening accommodations — to Islanders

Phase 3 of that plan, tentatively set to begin June 12, would allow campgrounds, hospitality homes, inns, and bed and breakfasts to open their doors — but only to P.E.I. residents.

The P.E.I. Convention Centre is closed until at least June 25, as is the adjoining Delta Hotel in behind it. The 2020 tourism season is headed in the wrong direction for Island operators, with mass cancellations and no date set for when visitors from off-Island will be allowed in. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The province has provided little indication when it might be willing to consider opening up to incoming travellers.

While it's presumed that would be included in the fourth phase of P.E.I.'s plan, there are no details provided for what would be allowed when the province reaches that phase, nor a potential implementation date.

"If we err by moving too fast, opening too soon, making our province vulnerable to the spread of the virus, people could get really, really sick, or die," said Premier Dennis King while unveiling the province's ease-back plan.

"And there are no [aid] programs to bring people back from the dead."

King said the greatest risk the virus presents to Islanders comes from travel outside provincial borders, and thus restrictions at points of entry will be among the last to be rolled back.

Some already looking to next season

The Stanley Bridge Country Resort is preparing for a late start to a season with fewer guests and fewer staff.

Big events like weddings have been rebooked for next year, said marketing and sales manager Savannah Campbell.

Karen Milligan, owner of the Inn at St. Peters, says her business will survive to see next season, but she thinks some other Island tourism operators will not. (Submitted by Inn at St. Peters)

"The 2020 brides and the 2021 brides, they're now competing for the same vendors," said Campbell

"We're just pushing forward and expecting next year to be quite busy, which it already seems to be. But this year is unfortunately going to be not a very good summer."

More cancellations, and maybe more to come

By her calculations, Milligan guesses the earliest the province could open for travel would be July 3. And so she said over the next few days she'll cancel hundreds of nights of bookings before that date. She's still taking bookings for after July 3, but on the understanding those too could be cancelled. 

She's telling her 25 staff the earliest they could open would be mid-June (opening day had been set for May 22), but that too could be delayed.

The Cavendish Beach Music Festival is one of a number of marquee Island events cancelled for 2020. (John Robertson/CBC)

She says the province has done a "wonderful job" handling the pandemic, but wishes more information were made available on when travel restrictions might be lifted.

"Even if they came out to tourism operators and said, 'we for sure will not have the bridge open until such-and-such a date,' at least we know that," she said.

"At least that gives us something to work on, and to try and base our decisions on."

Other signs of a season that may not come

P.E.I. draws upwards of 1.5 million visitors each year, with annual tourism-related expenditures approaching half-a-billion dollars. After agriculture, tourism is the second-largest industry in the province.

On the Charlottetown waterfront, the $24-million P.E.I. Convention Centre, which opened in 2013, sits empty — all bookings cancelled until at least June 25, with no certainty as to what might happen beyond that date.

Back in March, Port Charlottetown announced it was lopping off the first part of the lucrative cruise ship season. The port's website still lists pending cruise ship arrivals starting July 1, but with the caveat that schedule is still subject to change.

Mike and Rochelle Byrne of Markham, Ont., were married at the Stanley Bridge Resort on P.E.I. in 2017. The resort says many weddings which were booked for 2020 have been moved to 2021. (Submitted by Rochelle Byrne )

The Cavendish Beach Music Festival, which draws tens of thousands of country music fans each year, is one of a number of marquee events that won't take place in 2020. And the Charlottetown Festival cancelled its season, meaning the longest-running annual musical production in the world, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, won't have its usual run this year.

Regional connection?

There have been discussions involving all three Maritime provinces about the potential for opening their borders to each other at some point to allow regional travel.

On Friday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said he'd discussed opening the border to P.E.I. with King.

He said New Brunswick might consider easing restrictions on its side of the Confederation Bridge because both provinces find themselves in similar situations in their efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said he would consider opening the border with P.E.I., and said discussions around that are ongoing. (CBC)

Testing in each province has resulted in a positive infection rate in about one per cent, among the lowest rates in the country, and according to some experts a signal each province has COVID-19 in check.

"Could [the border] be shared and opened collectively at some point along the way? I think so," said Higgs, adding that discussions are ongoing.

Some operators won't make it

The P.E.I. government has announced $50 million in loan assistance for tourism operators, along with $10 million in interest relief on existing provincial loans for tourism operators over the next 18 months.

Milligan said she hasn't applied for assistance for the Inn at St. Peters but said she'll still be around next season. She doesn't believe the same holds true for all Island tourism operators.

"A lot of businesses will close and they just won't open back up.… I certainly think we'll see a downsizing in the industry."

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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