As summer nears its end, Newfoundland and Labrador tourism officials say 2022's Come Home Year campaign has been a success so far. But the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't ended, and some sectors are still struggling.
Officially announced in November, Come Home Year was designed to encourage former residents of the province to return home and inspire tourists to visit the province.
The campaign will continue into the fall, but the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation says it has already been a success for the cultural and tourism industries.
More than two years into the pandemic, all indications are that tourists were itching to travel to the province, with an estimated 174,100 non-resident air and auto visitors between January and July, a 292 per cent increase over the same period in 2021, says the department.
An exciting time for some business owners
Entrepreneurs have seen boosts in business throughout the tourism season as well.
Jason Roberts, owner of DRL Coach Lines, says his business, despite being deemed an essential service, was plagued by COVID-19 through 2020-21. But things are looking up in 2022.
"We're probably about 75 to 80 per cent of where we were pre-pandemic," said Roberts. "It's pretty exciting to see that people are on the move and come here. That really means a significant amount for our business."
Roberts is optimistic about how the rest of the year will play out, given the return of cruise ships to the province. He said DRL is expecting "a really good" September in the Corner Brook region and may even surpass pre-pandemic levels.
"I'm anticipating that hopefully people are going to continue to move, to some degree," said Roberts.
And when they're on the road, tourists need accommodations.
John Steele, who owns numerous hotels and other businesses across Newfoundland, says his businesses were able to navigate the pandemic "relatively well" but the boost from recent tourism spikes has been welcome.
"We really noticed a big change for the better in May," said Steele. "Things really started to pick up for us in June and July. August was very strong, September [and] October look pretty good, and that's in all of our properties in St. John's, Gander and Corner Brook."
Given the success that Come Home 2022 has brought thus far, Steele hopes the province capitalizes on similar opportunities in the future.
"It would be great if the province could come up with another theme for next year," said Steele. "Something that doesn't necessarily focus on expats, but bringing people to Newfoundland [and Labrador] that have never been here before."
Restaurants struggle to return to normal
While a stroll through downtown St. John's might give the appearance that the restaurant industry has quickly rebounded, the vice-president of Atlantic Canada for Restaurants Canada says looks can be deceiving.
Richard Alexander says the restaurant business is about eight per cent below pre-pandemic levels. It's great that customers can enjoy a meal at their favourite spot with friends and family again, he said, but many restaurant owners are struggling to stay afloat.
"Things are going better than when we were closed," said Alexander. "But the restaurants that survived the pandemic did so by incurring significant amounts of debt. Many of them are still struggling under significant amounts of debt.
"We were really hopeful that once things opened up that we would see revenues rise, which we did, but we didn't expect to be hit as well with the inflationary pressures that everybody in the country is experiencing."
Alexander says national research indicates that about half of table service restaurants in Canada are operating at a loss or just breaking even. Given that profit margins are between one to two per cent to begin with, he said, inflation has spelled trouble for restaurants that were fortunate enough to make it through the pandemic.
"People go out to a restaurant and they're sitting there and enjoying life again," said Alexander. "Things are great. People will say at first glance 'We've survived the pandemic. Everything is good.' This is really the start of the recovery, and it's going to be a long one for our industry for sure."