Residents of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador will get to enjoy taxpayer-subsidized travel to New Brunswick once the province's borders open this summer.
The Higgs government says it is expanding eligibility for the Explore NB rebate program to cover people from the three other provinces in the region.
"I'm so excited to announce that we will be expanding this program to our Atlantic neighbours when the reopening plan allows," Tourism Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace said.
"We can't wait to welcome our Atlantic bubble provinces to join us this summer."
The program allows people whose trips include at least one overnight stay to claim a 20 per cent rebate on expenses of up to $1,000.
The province expects to spend $4.5 million on the program this year.
Last year people could claim expenses for only a single trip, but this year multiple trips can be claimed, still up to a total maximum of $1,000 and a $200 rebate.
New Brunswick's borders have been closed to most non-essential travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, except from last July to November, when the Atlantic bubble allowed trips among the four provinces without isolation requirements.
Under New Brunswick's COVID-19 reopening plan, borders are to open later this month to people from Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec regions bordering this province.
That will happen when 75 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have had a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
The province will open to Nova Scotians and the rest of Canada on July 1 if 20 per cent of people have had a second dose by then.
Tourism industry hopeful
Carol Alderice, the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick president, said the industry took a major hit last year after three straight record years and may not recover fully from the pandemic until 2023 or 2024.
But she said the rebate program and the province's reopening plan both offer some reason for optimism.
"We are hopeful, and I must say we are the envy of all the associations across the country for having a date of Aug. 2 to possibly go green, just like we were the envy last year when we were the first ones to introduce this incentive program," Alderice said.
"We just have to be patient and hope that we recover faster than we think we are at this point."
Scott-Wallace said improvements are also being made to the rebate process that will see claims processed faster, quicker verification of receipts, and better contact with travellers if they've submitted something incorrectly.
That's aimed at avoiding complaints from some travellers who said rebates were slow to arrive, and the criteria for receipts were confusing.
"We learned from that, clearly," she said. "We heard. We listened. … We will certainly remain flexible in explaining issues with receipts, because I will say absolutely we want people to take advantage of this program."
There were 25,258 applicants for last summer's program, with claims totalling more than $2.5 million. The province also ran a similar program over the fall and winter.