Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Tourism operators face another season of uncertainty

  • June 9 2021
  • By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

CHARLOS COVE – It sure has felt like summer this past week. People are chomping at the bit to go somewhere; anywhere pandemic restrictions will allow. But tourism operators in Nova Scotia are worried that ‘somewhere’ may not be here.

Tourism industry stakeholders have been voicing concerns over the province’s five-phase opening plan and the lack of specific dates for opening. They’ve been calling for clearer targets, so tourists and businesses can make plans.

The Downtown Halifax Business Commission wrote an open letter to Premier Iain Rankin on June 3, stating worries shared by operators throughout the province: “Canadians are making summer travel plans collectively worth billions of dollars. With each day that passes, more of these dollars are being directed to other provinces that have made it clear that these visitors are welcome and appreciated.

“If we could simply say that in July we too would welcome them in, accommodation bookings would immediately begin to be made. Restaurants would immediately begin receiving reservation requests, retail businesses would again be able to anticipate people along our main streets with money to spend. Tourism businesses would have a real shot at making a season which would not only sustain them through this coming year but could indeed be the difference in their very survival.”

As if opening dates weren’t enough of a concern, prospects for the tourism season in Nova Scotia may be further threatened by the province’s reluctance to support the industry with a travel incentive plan similar to that offered by neighbouring New Brunswick. This year, New Brunswick is extending the program it offered New Bruswickers last year – a 20 per cent rebate on up to $1,000 in eligible expenses like accommodations, food and drinks, activities and travel – to all Atlantic Canadians.

The Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS) would like to see Nova Scotia offer a similar plan. When Rankin was asked by NEWS 95.7 fill-in host Todd Veinotte if Nova Scotia would consider launching an incentive program, he said he’d be “open to the discussions,” but he wasn’t sure the measure was needed, adding, “Last time we came out of previous waves, we had success moving people around the province, getting out to see different regions without an incentive.”

Tourism operators may not agree with Rankin on that point; and tourism industry numbers (see chart) from 2020 suggest otherwise, when assessing the situation in Nova Scotia.

Ann Marie Bagnall, owner/operator of Seawind Landing Country Inn located in Charlos Cove, Guysborough County, spoke to The Journal June 4 about the tourism season ahead and the need for provincial support to help the industry make it through the second pandemic summer.

“For us in this area … we did not see a whole lot of visitors from outside of N.S. [last year] … when you look at this year coming up, we have some concerns with New Brunswick offering the travel incentive package that it is, which is 20 per cent back.

“Last year, the feedback I heard from operators up there was that it was very successful; generated a lot of business for them. And now they have extended that to people from Nova Scotia, so there’s now a big risk that you’re going to be siphoning off some of the Nova Scotian travel traffic into New Brunswick because for some reason our premier doesn’t seem to think that you need to have an incentive package to get people to travel in N.S. We are not quite sure how he could make the statement that he made the other day about everything was just fine last year … We don’t know where he is. We did not do quite well,” said Bagnall.

While the province hasn’t given tourists a financial incentive to visit Nova Scotia, local tourism industry stakeholders have.

“We are … slashing our rates, offering packages, trying to make it as alluring as possible to get people out. And to have to compete with New Brunswick now and the province not doing anything … we are worried about that,” Bagnall said.

Speaking to the issue of solid dates for opening, she added, “The whole question as to when the borders will reopen, you have to wait until it is safe. The vaccine roll out is so key to that success of being able to open the borders.”

Another issue of concern for tourism accommodation businesses – like Bagnall’s – is the roll out, continuance and fairness of federal and provincial pandemic support programs. “Our biggest complaint right now is around the Small Busines Impact Grant (provincial) and the fact that it specifically excludes accommodation properties because we weren’t ordered to close… They ordered everybody who would be our customers to stay home and not travel, but they didn’t order us closed, so therefore, we weren’t eligible.”

Two federal programs, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), were key to the survival of many tourism operators last year. The programs are slated to continue throughout the summer of 2021 and could be extended, if warranted.

Bagnall said, “My concern about those two programs is that the federal government has said that they are planning to reduce that level of support as the program progresses based on the economy turning around. For tourism, and tourism in rural locations, my concern is that those programs might be turned off faster than what our recovery is actually doing. Because, last year, if CEWS hadn’t of existed at the level that it had; it was critical to why we were able to open. There was such a substantial drop in revenue, that was the only way to go.”

Reflecting on the many uncertainties tourism operators are facing this season, Bagnall said, “There’s only so much that the local market can make up for – so we’re worried.”

On a positive note, Bagnall said last year, “We attracted a lot of first-time Nova Scotia visitors to this part the province and they loved it and a lot of them are coming back so that is a good thing. It’s just there’s only so much that Nova Scotians can do and the traffic pattern for them tends to be on the weekend. So, you still have to figure out how do you get that traffic in the middle of the week.

“Maritimers, it’s a hard market because you get beautiful landscape, beautiful ocean; this is what the Maritimes are all about. And that’s why I think last year we got a lot of first-timers because they said, ‘Okay, let’s go check out the Eastern Shore.’ It’s lovely, we offer what people are looking for: quiet escape, no people—so we’ve got that going for us.”