Last year, most summer evenings in downtown Charlottetown looked the same. Patios were packed with travellers enjoying lobster and steak. Classic rock and Irish reels reverberated off colourful wooden buildings. Drips of Cows ice cream trailed from the waterfront parlour to nearby parking lots, which were filled with cars that had crossed hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres to get here.
Now, just months removed from a record-breaking year in PEI tourism, the COVID-19 pandemic has crushed the Island’s second-biggest industry. Tourism-based businesses, workers and communities across Canada are preparing for a bleak year, as the crisis curtails travel and makes large gatherings impossible. But provinces whose economies rely heavily on tourism – such as Prince Edward Island, which welcomes 10 times the number of visitors a year as it has residents – risk being hit the hardest.
The Island began reopening its society and economy on May 1, and all of its 27 COVID-19 cases are considered recovered. Yet, the provincial and federal borders remain closed for tourism.
“The numbers are going to be devastating,” PEI Tourism Minister Matthew MacKay said. “I can’t think of a touristic sector on the island that has not been affected.”
Tourism is responsible for 6.4 per cent of PEI’s annual GDP – the highest percentage for a province in Canada. In 2019, related expenditure by residents and visitors exceeded $500-million for the first time, said Brenda Gallant, Tourism PEI’s director of marketing and communications. This year, the province has no choice but to be unwelcoming to visitors.
The Charlottetown Festival, which features Anne of Green Gables – The Musical, the world’s longest-running annual musical theatre production, was scrapped for the first time in its 56 years of history. Cancelling the shows affects close to 175 jobs and will result in roughly $4-million of lost revenue, according to Steve Bellamy, chief executive officer of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. (The festival is the main economic driver of the centre, generating approximately 40 per cent of its revenue.) He estimates spinoff losses for the local economy could be as much as $20-million.
Cottage businesses that rely on tourism are booking few to no rentals, and campgrounds might not open at all. Bed and breakfasts, campsites, rental homes and inns will all “potentially” be permitted to open on June 12, as part of the reopening plan’s Phase 3 – but only to residents. And while islanders can use their own private cottages, non-resident owners currently outside PEI cannot, as doing so would require non-essential travel.
The strain on tourism resulting from the outbreak gives business owners little choice but to temporarily close shop. Restaurateur Dave Hyndman is considering shuttering Dave’s Lobster Rolls for the summer. The seafood specialty restaurant has locations in Cavendish and Charlottetown, PEI’s top two travel destinations.
“We’re primary a tourism business,” he said. “The numbers will be off this year. Even if we’re allowed to open, it might not be worth it.”
Mr. Hyndman employs up to 30 people every summer, and what pains him most about closing is the thought of leaving his staff without jobs.
“You want them to have work,” he said. "A lot of the staff are summer students.”
Tourism creates 15,000 to 17,000 jobs in the province, many primarily summer positions. Figures for March, the latest available, show an unemployment rate of 8.6 per cent, or 7,400 persons, for PEI. But those numbers cover only 16 days under the state of emergency. The Department of Finance reported in April that the effect of COVID-19 on employment could peak at 20,200 job losses in May.
Ms. Gallant said it will be important to encourage the Island’s 157,000 residents to take staycations this year. But an economic downturn is inevitable for the province, she added.
The rest of Atlantic Canada is also already feeling the pinch.
In Nova Scotia, the tourism industry generated $2.6-billion in revenue last year. As in PEI, businesses such as campsites, seafood restaurants and cottage owners are preparing for a difficult year.
Wouter Roos, manager at Larinda’s Landing Oceanfront Cottages in St. Margaret’s Bay on the South Shore, said summer bookings had been up by 70 per cent from last year, but that was before the pandemic. He has since reimbursed most clients who had booked for May and June, and foresees a decline in revenue of anywhere between 50 and 100 per cent compared with last year.
Mr. Roos now wonders whether it even makes financial sense for him to hire summer staff. He is waiting to see if the federal government will offer more monetary aid to small, non-essential businesses in tourism.
“What we need in our situation is financial relief for lost revenue and staff,” he said.
A few hours north of St. Margaret’s Bay, a whale-watching business in St. Andrews, N.B., expects its yearly income to be cut by at least two-thirds. Jolly Breeze Tall Ships, which sail on the Bay of Fundy, entertained 14,000 passengers last year.
The vessels carry 49 passengers and are considered large cruise ships by Transport Canada, which makes them banned from operating until July 1 at the earliest. Operator Joanne Carney hired her summer staff in January, and may be forced to introduce layoffs and reduced hours.
“It’s full of uncertainty at present,” she said. “There are so many aspects of the pandemic that can potentially affect our business.”
In the summer, the tall ships draw about 450 people daily to St. Andrews, and the tourists are a boon for the town’s other industries. Ms. Carney expects it will take three to five years for her business to recover from the financial damage caused by a year with minimal or no visitors.
In Newfoundland, bars and restaurants are usually a hotbed for tourists. This year, St. John’s most storied establishments are scrambling to operate.
Brenda O’Reilly, who co-owns O’Reilly’s, a massive Irish pub on George Street, closed her bar indefinitely, just before St. Patrick’s Day. Since then, she said, her establishment has been bleeding money. O’Reilly’s is popular with locals, but 85 per cent of its income comes from tourists who visit Newfoundland for summer events such as the Royal St. John’s Regatta or the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. The bar can accommodate up to 600 patrons.
“O’Reilly’s is a community and we will get through this,” said the co-owner. Several of the bar’s regular musicians took to Facebook to sing her Happy Birthday recently, she added, including Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea. “It’s been devastating, but whenever we open again, we will have to encourage people to buy local.”
Globe health columnist André Picard examines the complex issues around reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus lockdown. He says whatever happens as provinces reopen, there's also a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses looming in the fall. André was talking via Instagram Live with The Globe's Madeleine White.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.