If you live in Atlantic Canada and have ever wanted to eat a lobster roll while gazing at the oldest lighthouse on Prince Edward Island or shuck oysters before heading to a supposedly haunted island cemetery, this is your year, according to a promotional campaign by PEI’s Department of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture.
To prepare for a typical summer, the department would normally be marketing PEI’s sandy beaches, seafood and iconic Anne of Green Gables House around the world. In 2018, the province welcomed 1.58 million visitors, the bulk of them from June to August.
But this year, COVID-19 travel restrictions have essentially banned foreign visitors to Canada, and PEI’s own rules prevent tourists from many other provinces from travelling to the island.
Across the country, other provinces and regions are also scrambling to save their beleaguered tourism businesses. Normally, the sector brings in about $102-billion a year to the Canadian economy and accounts for about 1.8 million jobs, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
But with no visitors from abroad this summer, the industry is struggling to generate even a fraction of that activity. To try to make up for the shortfall, tourism associations are targeting marketing dollars at locals and nearby provinces, hotels are promoting “staycation” packages and popular attractions are making a hard pivot to encourage locals to explore their own backyards.
In PEI, the province’s tourism association says the sector accounts for about $447-million a year in economic activity, or 6.3 per cent of GDP. This year, PEI is relying heavily on visitors from the so-called Atlantic Bubble – the island itself and the three other provinces in the region – to keep businesses and tour operators alive.
The centrepiece is Activate Our Island, a domestic campaign that highlights local destinations and cuisine, and offers opportunities to win $100 gift cards to support businesses. Megan Damini, a spokesperson for Parks Canada, said visits to Green Gables Heritage Place this year are expected to be made up mostly of islanders themselves and some seasonal residents.
In May, Ottawa announced that it would boost efforts to promote holiday travel within Canada. Included was a plan to reallocate $30-million that would usually be devoted to attracting foreign visitors, and to shift it to local efforts instead.
Provinces and territories on the East and West coasts have also formed regional “bubbles” of travel. Yukon says it will welcome travellers from British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut starting Canada Day. The four Atlantic provinces – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador – are planning to do the same starting this Friday.
For months, Canadians were told to stay home and the vast majority complied. As cities began to reopen, however, the tourism industry had to move quickly to try to salvage the summer months, which typically generate the largest chunks of the industry’s annual profits.
In early June, Tourism Vancouver launched #VancouverComeBack to encourage residents to enjoy their own city. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s the “Stay Home Year 2020,” which started on June 23 and will run for 10 weeks through “a mix of TV and radio ads as well as online and social media components,” Tourism Minister Bernard Davis says.
He says he hopes the regional campaign will help, too. “The recent announcement of the Atlantic Bubble will lead to an expansion of marketing efforts promoting Newfoundland and Labrador to the Maritimes,” Mr. Davis said.
Despite campaigns like that, however, businesses say they don’t expect nearly as many tourists or as much revenue coming in this summer as in previous years.
“So much of Canada relies on summer for tourism revenue and our destination is no exception,” said Leslie Bruce, president and chief executive of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism.
On average, Ms. Bruce says, businesses in the area typically generate about 55 per cent of their annual revenue from June to September, and resorts and hotels are filled to about 90 per cent occupancy. In 2019, more than 1.8 million people visited Banff National Park from June to August, according to Parks Canada. In a normal year, roughly half of those summer visitors are from outside Canada, Ms. Bruce said.
But this summer, she expects hotels and resorts in the area will reach just 20 per cent to 40 per cent occupancy, though exact figures will depend on how travel restrictions evolve over the next several weeks and months.
Banff is seeing an uptick in reservations from Canadians outside of Alberta for the late summer, likely in hopes that things will have opened up more. Based on foreign inquiries and bookings for the fall and winter, Ms. Bruce says there’s also “clearly pent up demand” from international tourists.
“It’s got everybody quite anxious about what will actually happen,” she says. Tourism is vital to the town. In a recent economic impact study, 97 per cent of the people in Banff said they were involved in the industry.
But local efforts can only help so much. Last year, more than eight million foreign tourists visited Canada from June to August. This year, with restrictions on non-essential travellers and the U.S.-Canada border closed off until at least July 21, businesses say they don’t expect nearly the same number of visitors – if any at all – from outside the country.
The numbers so far have been devastating. In April, about 23,000 non-resident tourists entered Canada, according to Statistics Canada, compared with the 2.7 million in April, 2019. The latest numbers from Destination Canada, a federal Crown corporation, show that in April, the first full month after restrictions on non-essential travel into Canada were instated, overnight arrivals into the country plummeted 98.3 per cent.
“Most of our industry was overflowing with activity in the previous years,” said Marsha Walden, CEO of Destination BC, a provincially funded organization that promotes tourism to British Columbia.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Walden said she was having regular conversations about the need for more attractions, hotels and activities just to keep up with the volume of tourism in the province. “Now, it’s a very, very different situation,” she said.
Some operators remain hopeful. Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, doesn’t expect the number of visitors to match that of previous years, but he says there are some signs of pent-up demand from British Columbians and residents from Alberta, who typically make up a large chunk of annual visits to the province.
Other officials are more guarded. In Toronto, the tourism industry normally brings in about $6.7-billion a year and employs about 70,000 people, according to a 2019 annual report by Destination Toronto.
Tourists from abroad are important – they make up 40 per cent of all the visitors to the city, but account for about 60 per cent of all visitor spending. Tourists from the United States account for about 29 per cent of total spending.
Andrew Weir, executive vice-president of Destination Toronto, said international visitors are more likely to stay at hotels, stay longer and spend more than Canadians during their time in the city.
“It will be a long time before travel resumes at full 2019 levels from all the different markets and segments,” Mr. Weir said. Even when Toronto reopens more businesses this summer and Canadians are encouraged to travel domestically, he doesn’t expect the same number of domestic visitors as in previous years.
“It’s true that people don’t have many choices as they had before,” Mr. Weir said. “People can’t travel internationally, but at the same time there are a lot of people that are simply going to be curtailing travel plans entirely.”
Operators on the west coast of Vancouver Island are also cautious. Nancy Cameron, executive director for Tourism Tofino, said in an e-mail earlier this month that accommodation providers had been receiving reservations for July and August in anticipation that B.C. would have moved into phase three of its reopening by that time. The province moved into phase three last week but still, businesses expect much less visitors than normal this summer.
The province has seen far fewer COVID-19 cases than Ontario and Quebec, making it an attractive tourist destination for some. But Ms. Cameron says that she has yet to see any trends of Canadians from other provinces travelling to the island.
“There will certainly be some exceptions,” she said, “however, based on the bookings being received, the vast majority of our visitors will be B.C. residents.”
According to the B.C. Hotel Association, when lockdown restrictions were implemented, 40 per cent of the hotels in British Columbia closed down and more than 60,000 employees were laid off.
Ingrid Jarrett, president and CEO of the association, is encouraged that British Columbia has moved into phase three of reopening. But she doubts that will attract many visitors from outside the province.
“The industry is desperate to do everything they can to save the summer,” Ms. Jarrett said.
Some of the hotels that remained open have shifted their marketing to locals, promoting “staycations” and discounted getaways to British Columbians who may want to just get out of the house. The Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside and Village Centre have a “BC Resident Package” available. In Vancouver, the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver is offering discounts to in-province residents for extended stays.
“Domestic travel, for us, is everything if we’re going to keep our businesses solvent and keep people employed,” Ms. Jarrett said.
But even with locals supporting the industry this year, most businesses – even those in provinces that have largely reopened – still have to abide by a multitude of safety regulations that will mean fewer customers and less revenue.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in downtown Toronto opened last Friday, after the city entered phase two of its reopening. Even so, Peter Doyle, the general manager of the aquarium, says it will not be marketing at all in the U.S. this summer, as it usually does.
“This money will be refocused in Ontario. So that is a big change,” Mr. Doyle said.
The aquarium, which is operating at just 30 per cent capacity, has stickers on its floors to remind people to maintain physical distancing and employees assigned to control visitors in main galleries. Some interactive areas, such as playgrounds and pop-up tanks, remain closed for the time being.
Mr. Doyle declined to provide exact numbers, but said that it costs more than $1-million a month to keep the aquarium running. Even at 30 per cent capacity, however, he said the aquarium will be able to cover all of its costs.
“We are just excited to reopen,” Mr. Doyle said.
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