One night in late July, popular Prince Edward Island hotel The Holman Grand hit 100-per-cent occupancy for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting local lockdowns and interprovincial travel bans. On the other side of the country in British Columbia, the uptick in domestic travel is seeing an even bigger surge, with travellers taking to Twitter to express consternation over being unable to book a rental car or find accommodations in the more popular vacation spots, such as Whistler or the Okanagan Valley.
Provincial tourism boards are confirming that Canada is experiencing a boom in domestic travel. “Based on limited capacity, we’re encouraging visitors to come and stay mid-week, or to plan autumn getaways and vacations – equally great times to hike, bike and golf, but with more access to amenities, parks and trails, and greater availability of accommodation,” says Tourism Whistler CEO Barrett Fischer, referring to both the high number of bookings and decreased space because of COVID-19 safety regulations.
In 2019, the Tourism Resource Model produced by Statistics Canada counted 1.9 million full-time tourism jobs in the country – a lot of people to try to get back to work on short notice as travel resumes at an unpredictable rate. Combined with the fact that a large number of Canadians seem to be exceptionally eager for a change of scenery or a long-overdue visit to see friends and family in other parts of the country, supply is falling short of demand in some areas. What this means for those still thinking about hitting the road is that planning ahead is crucial.
In the interior of B.C., a popular destination for wine enthusiasts, summer visitor numbers will be close to what they were in pre-pandemic years, says Tourism Kelowna president and CEO Lisanne Ballantyne. She adds that the area is “seeing good interest into fall and winter, which is terrific because you can see, do and experience so much in those more relaxed and laid-back months.” Ballantyne confirms that some summer tourists are experiencing challenges in securing local transportation and places to stay, and recommends planning for and confirming those travel essentials well in advance.
Local businesses such as wineries, restaurants and golf courses are seeing strong traffic, while at the same time facing extreme operational and labour challenges because the pace of a return to travel has been less than predictable, Ballantyne says.
She’s not the only tourism industry professional to caution travellers to arrive equipped with a little extra patience and understanding. In a LinkedIn post, Travel Alberta CEO David Goldstein advised Canadians eager to resume travel to put kindness first when it comes to dealing with hospitality industry staffers. “Many of us have been living cloistered lives behind screens for the last 16 months. Let’s be a bit more self-aware that our capacity for social interaction may have eroded somewhat,” he wrote after witnessing an angry guest berate hotel front-desk staff. “As we all emerge back into some semblance of ‘real life,’ please remember the people that are serving us are human beings, too.”
Goldstein, who’s been touring around his province since travel restrictions eased on July 1, told The Globe and Mail that he’s seeing tourism demand outstrip capacity in some spots. In Lethbridge, he stayed at a Best Western that boasted a 97-per-cent occupancy rate on the night he was there. Later that week, Goldstein visited Barney’s Adventure Park, one of Alberta’s new dinosaur-themed family attractions. “They ran out of vanilla ice cream on a Tuesday,” he says, adding that in his industry, “vanilla ice cream is a very important economic determinant.”
In Ontario, April Brown and Sarah Sklash, the co-founders behind the two June Motel locations in Prince Edward County and Sauble Beach, say they’re fully booked for the summer. “Sauble Beach used to be a super seasonal beach town where everything closed up Labour Day weekend, but now businesses are staying open much longer and travellers are excited about exploring Bruce Peninsula and Sauble Beach in the fall when the beaches and parks are a little less crowded,” Brown says. “We’ve already decided to stay open until late November, and for the first time ever are contemplating staying open year-round due to the demand for local travel.”
Not every facet of the travel industry is seeing the same uptick in traffic, however. The International Air Transport Association reports that worldwide domestic demand was down 22.4 per cent this past June versus pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Calgary resident Donna Tillotson regularly flies to Vancouver, where she catches a ferry to Comox, B.C. Tillotson says that she had no trouble booking a last-minute flight for an August trip out west, and was surprised to see Calgary-to-Vancouver fares for as little as $65. She has, however, been warned that the B.C. ferry she plans on taking has been extremely crowded as of late.
Each province has decided its own schedule and rules for reopening to visitors, so while the Northwest Territories remains closed to travellers, Saskatchewan has removed all public-health orders – from mandatory masking to caps on the number of people attending group events. Recovery of each province’s tourism industry, therefore, will advance at very different paces. For example, a Labour Day long weekend intermediate SUV rental from a major car-rental outlet in Toronto is currently priced at around $300 from Friday to Tuesday. That same vehicle for the same dates in Vancouver will cost renters more than $800.
Even within provinces as small as PEI, different sectors have bounced back at varying rates. While the Atlantic Bubble was crucial in keeping COVID-19 numbers down in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, it also presented a problem for small tour operators offering activities such as deep sea fishing or clam digging. “It’s difficult to sell an Atlantic-Canadian experience to Atlantic Canadians,” says Corryn Clemence, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of PEI, explaining that Ontario and Quebec are the province’s two biggest markets. “It was really a pivotal point for them to hear the [July 18] border-opening announcement for the rest of Canada, because those are the people that really want those activities.”
A return to travel doesn’t mean a complete relaxation of pandemic safety protocols, of course. Masks, testing, contact tracing and high vaccination rates remain key to ensuring that Canadian destinations remain open to travellers. Says Tourism Kelowna’s Ballantyne: “Our goal is to welcome back visitors safely and sustain the momentum and excitement of travel through the coming seasons.”
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