Old Quebec a 'ghost town' without usual influx of cruise ship tourists

·3 min read

The Hôtel Clarendon, a stalwart brick tower inside the ramparts of Old Quebec, bills itself as Canada's oldest hotel and 2020 was meant to be a celebration of its 150th anniversary.

Instead, the place is empty, its spotless brass doors locked.

"This was supposed to be a party here for us, the best year," said Marc-Olivier Côté, a co-owner and the hotel's general manager. "Suddenly everything goes down the drain. This is unbelievable for us. But that's the way it is, we understand people are dying right now."

Like hundreds of other businesses in tourism-dependent Quebec City, the Clarendon bore the full brunt of the first COVID-19 wave this past spring.

It closed temporarily then and has decided to shut down again for the month of October, and possibly longer. It is one of at least 20 hotels in the city to close its doors during the second wave.

"There's no one, literally, in Old Quebec," Côté said.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

According to the association that represents the area's hotel owners, 4,000 people in the hospitality sector will be out of work by the time November rolls around.

No one disputes the need for extraordinary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in the city. It's hit the critical alert level on the province's colour-coded map for a reason.

But this week the Association hotelière de la région de Québec (AHRQ) held a protest rally in hopes of attracting the province and the city's attention.

Côté said he and his partners are trying to find new sources of financing to stay afloat (the fact the hotel was closed for all of 2019 because of a major fire doesn't help) but that the various aid packages on offer don't apply to their situation.

Marjolaine De Sa, executive director of the AHRQ, said that's a common plight. The province announced a $750 million fund for emergency loans to the tourism industry in July, but De Sa said only 10 per cent of hotel owners qualify under the current rules.

The industry group is asking for easier access, and for a tax break from the city. The various hotel taxes account for $51 million in a typical year, De Sa said. It will take years to recover from COVID-19, she added.

Last week, Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx indicated her willingness to negotiate "adjustments" to the rescue fund. The hoteliers say they're running out of time to talk.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Dagmar Lombard, general-manager of the Auberge Saint-Antoine, a family-owned boutique hotel in the city's Old Port, said she's at five per cent occupancy. In a typical October, that number would be 85 per cent or higher.

"My husband and I said the other day, it's a little bit like a ghost town. Could be nice for Halloween but it's rather sad, obviously," she said.

Not only the is the hotel relatively empty, what business it has drummed up through its various staycation promotions is vastly less profitable. The average room rate in October is around $400, Lombard said, but rates have been slashed to $149.

It's the price to pay in order to lure in a coronavirus-weary local clientèle.

De Sa said that if the current anti-virus measures are maintained for another month, it will imperil Christmas bookings, which many businesses were hoping could stem the flow of red ink. She said a total of 80 hotels could end up shutting down if the situation doesn't improve by mid-November.

"We're going to finish [2020] under 20 per cent [occupancy]," De Sa told CBC's Breakaway this week. "You have to understand that just to open the doors of a hotel you need between 40 and 45 per cent, depending on the loans of the owners, etc."

The association expects its members to close out October with an average occupancy of between two and four per cent for the month. That's compared to 33 per cent in August.