More New Brunswickers explored their home province this summer under COVID-19 travel restrictions, a shift those in the tourism industry expect will provide a boost into the future.
The Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick says staycations are opening the door for a larger local tourism market in the province.
President and CEO Carol Alderdice said the Atlantic bubble did little to help draw outside visitors, with more than 80 per cent of people staying in their own province.
"Overall, I think our industry did exceptionally well considering what they had to cope with, she said.
The province as a whole experienced a 53 per cent decrease in overnight stays by Canadian visitors. Those figures count each night where someone stayed at an accommodation more than 60 kilometres away from their home.
The summer of staycations prompted New Brunswickers to discover new regions.
The Acadian Peninsula normally draws the bulk of its annual visitors from Quebec — more than 66 per cent. But with travel restrictions limiting potential tourists to the Atlantic bubble, the industry was forced to launch a marketing campaign that targeted New Brunswickers.
"There's definitely an increase in customers they will have year over year, assuming we continue to promote the province to New Brunswickers," Alderdice said.
Yannick Mainville, the region's tourism development director, said efforts to attract people from cities in the primarily Anglophone south paid off.
"We proved our region is beautiful like other regions," he said. "We have exceptional biking trails and a lot of activities, so people down south discovered that."
New market for Acadian Peninsula
A noticeable difference on the peninsula this summer: more English could be heard at campground and tourist attractions.
The Acadian Peninsula's Tourism Office had billboards in Saint John, Moncton and ads on Fredericton buses. It also promoted the destination on social media.
Normally about 20 per cent of visitors are from New Brunswick, and a smaller percentage is anglophone. This year, Mainville estimated that anglophones filled 40 to 45 per cent of the void created by the absence of Quebecers.
The region also offers about 12 beaches, and the Veloroute biking trail spans more than 70 kilometres between Bertrand, Lamèque and Tracadie.
Another draw during the pandemic: the absence of large hotels, motels and crowds in the rural area. Statistics show many travellers preferred cottage rentals and camping.
Not all attractions managed to draw strong numbers. The Village Historique Acadien in Bertrand saw just over 3,200 visitors in August — 81 per cent fewer than last year.
The New Brunswick Aquarium and Marine Centre in Shippagan faced a 74 per cent drop, with about 4,000 visitors for July.
Mainville said tour operators reported getting visitors from places that usually draw few people, including Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John, Sussex and Perth-Andover.
He said the tourism association plans to continue promoting its destinations to the southern New Brunswick market next year. Those efforts will include more advertising to anglophones.
"Some people, with the language, don't think we speak English. That's also a thing."
Outdoor activities, provincial parks prove popular
Vacationers spent considerable time outdoors while this summer, with many opting to camp and visit natural areas.
Provincial parks saw a 30 per cent increase in visits by New Brunswickers, according to statistics provided by the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture. But the parks also recorded 34 per cent fewer overall visitors compared to 2019.
"As difficult as the situation can be, it gave the opportunity to New Brunswickers to rediscover their own province," department spokesperson Jean Bertin wrote in an email.
Popular parks included Parlee Beach, which drew more than 138,000 people.
While most parks saw an overall decline in visits compared to 2019, Mount Carleton Provincial Park was the exception. It recorded 25,194 visitors over the summer months, compared to 22,945 in 2019, helped by a surge of August campers and hikers.
Mactaquac Provincial Park drew 87,526 visitors, falling just 1,530 short of last year's total.
Alderdice said campgrounds, golf courses, beaches and other outdoor activities had the best seasons.
The Kingsbrae Garden in Saint Andrews was also popular. It only saw a 14 per cent decrease in visitors from 2019, for the months of June and July.
One of the few attractions to report an increase in visitors was the Fundy Trail Parkway, which opened an expansion allowing it to be accessible from Sussex. Visits were up 30 per cent with more than 25,000 in June and July.
August and September visitor statistics for attractions are not yet available.
Tough summer for hotels, restaurants
Hotels continued to see low occupancy rates, while restaurants have suffered from reduced capacity with physical-distancing measures. With cold weather moving in, the closing of patio spaces will further reduce seating.
Overnight stays and hotels saw some help with the rollout of the province's travel incentive program, Alderdice said. It offers New Brunswickers a 20 per cent rebate on overnight stays in the province until Sept. 30, for up to $1,000.
Hotel occupancy rates have remained weak throughout the summer.
Only about 27 per cent of hotel room nights were booked this year to date, according to statistics from the provincial government. That's compared to 54 per cent in 2019.
The tourism industry association continues to advocate for the extension of the federal wage subsidy to help operators survive.
"If that goes away or even gets diminished, you're going to see a lot of closures," Alderdice said.