Last year, summertime didn’t look the same on Prince Edward Island.
The province’s patios weren’t packed with visitors enjoying lobster and drinking craft beer; the historic streets of downtown Charlottetown weren’t adorned with as many traditional horse-and-wagon rides; and museums and gift shops in Cavendish were quiet despite their picturesque location.
According to statistics published by the Tourism Industry Association of Prince Edward Island (TIAPEI), the leisure industry generates roughly $486.5-million in economic activity each year in the province and accounts for 6.2 per cent of PEI’s total GDP. In 2019, tourism provided 8,782 full-time equivalent jobs for Islanders.
For a province whose economy relies significantly on tourism, 2020 was a devastating year.
In a statement last month, the four Atlantic premiers announced that the “Atlantic bubble” (which allows travellers from within the four provinces to cross borders without having to self-isolate for 14 days) would reopen on April 19.
TIAPEI chief executive officer Corryn Clemence said the early announcement gives tourism operators some time to ramp up for the summer season. Last year, the Atlantic bubble only began on July 3.
“We have had some time to understand the pandemic, the challenges and the restrictions that are at play this year – experiences and knowledge we didn’t necessarily have last summer,” she said. “In a lot of ways, PEI is the perfect summer destination.”
The plan to restart the Atlantic bubble in time for tourist season gives key local attractions such as the Anne of Green Gables Museum near Cavendish some hope for a better summer than in 2020. Highlighting the life and works of beloved Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the museum draws visitors from around the world each year, including from Quebec and Ontario here at home and further afield from Japan (the Japanese have long had a particular affinity for Montgomery’s red-haired heroine).
George Campbell, the owner of the museum, is glad the Atlantic bubble is set to reopen. “We were just hoping that we got opened up [earlier] this year” so as to hopefully attract more visitors, he said.
Last year, the museum’s income was down more than 90 per cent. Mr. Campbell also wasn’t able to hire any summer students or part-time staff for the first time in almost 50 years of operating. In a normal year, the museum generates 50 full-time jobs – but that number was down to just 12 last year.
“It was really tough,” Mr. Campbell said. “We were only able to stay open because of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.”
Mr. Campbell hopes that program, along with the federal Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, will be extended so he can bring back some employees this summer. Otherwise, he says, the museum may not be able to open at all this year even despite the bubble facilitating easier regional travel.
While PEI Chief Public Health Officer Heather Morrison has said no large indoor or outdoor festivals or events can take place this summer, that doesn’t mean activities in a different capacity aren’t allowed, Ms. Clemence said.
Drive-in music festivals and events with a smaller capacity could help bring visitors from across the Atlantic provinces to PEI, Ms. Clemence said, adding that her tourism association has been working “to tap into those creative minds that are in the industry to see what we can do for this summer. I think our low COVID case count also speaks volumes for the safety of our destination.”
Steve Bellamy, CEO of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, shares the enthusiasm about the reopening of the bubble. The centre has “a number of plans ready to execute,” he said. “Shows will be presented in person, safely with protocols in place.”
This summer, the centre will bring back The Charlottetown Festival, its annual musical-theatre series, beginning on June 3. Given financial restrictions and COVID protocols, it’s impossible to feature large-scale Broadway musicals this year, so the festival will instead present three mainstage performances of Atlantic-based shows – including OLD STOCK: A Refugee Love Story; Dear Rita; and Between Breaths – performed for a maximum of 300 attendees per performance in the centre’s 1,100-seat theatre.
The Confederation Centre Young Company will also present a daily outdoor live performance called THE RISING!, while the Confederation Centre Art Gallery will continue to offer five exhibitions of Canadian visual art in the coming months, Mr. Bellamy said.
“Following our operational plans, patrons will be safely distanced. We have been presenting socially distanced shows all winter, so I don’t think we will have trouble filling the theatre for the shows,” he said.
Last year, after the cancellation of The Charlottetown Festival for the first time in its 56-year history, the centre had to cancel many job contracts, Mr. Bellamy said, adding the “devastating” move put about 150 people out of work. The cancellation also resulted loss in box-office revenue of between $3-million and $4-million.
A recent study on the economic impact of the Confederation Centre of the Arts showed that centre generates $27-million toward the province’s GDP, and $6-million in taxes contributed to both the province and the federal government. In an average year, the centre is also responsible for 300 to 400 full-time jobs.
“From the perspective of Charlottetown and PEI, it’s very important that Confederation Centre is operating,” Mr. Bellamy said.
PEI’s tourism industry will need to survive another challenging summer, Ms. Clemence said, noting the sector is already looking forward to 2022 and hoping for the day the province can fully reopen.
“I think a lot of our industry is excited that we may be nearing the end of this pandemic and we can look to welcoming the rest of Canada back to the Island again.”
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