From pandemic decimation to rebound: N.L. tourism operators reflect on surviving the last 2 years

·4 min read
Colin Shears, owner of Out East Adventures, says much of the out-of-province business he relies on returned to Rocky Harbour this summer.  (Colleen Connors/CBC - image credit)
Colin Shears, owner of Out East Adventures, says much of the out-of-province business he relies on returned to Rocky Harbour this summer. (Colleen Connors/CBC - image credit)
Colleen Connors/CBC
Colleen Connors/CBC

Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism industry is one of the province's economic work horses, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy every year.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit N.L. in March 2020, tourism operators faced a bleak future, as lockdowns, restrictions and a halt to international and interprovincial travel cut off their most important source of revenue essentially overnight.

Now, with almost all restrictions lifted, operators who spoke to CBC two years ago about their fears amid a pandemic-decimated season are finding themselves in much different circumstances.

Colin Sheares, owner and operator of Out East Adventures in Rocky Harbour, told CBC News in July 2020 that Newfoundlanders generally make up about just five per cent of his business, with the rest coming from tourists.

On Wednesday, Sheares said a provincial government focus on "staycations" helped boost his Newfoundland customer base in 2020 and 2021 — but the biggest portion of his business was gone..

"There was not really a lot of hope. In 2020 we basically made eight per cent of our business of what we'd make in a normal year. It was absolutely abysmal," said Sheares.

But with pandemic restrictions lifted for the 2022 season, and the province's Come Home Year marketing campaign running at full throttle, Sheares said the tourism situation — at least from his perspective — has certainly turned around.

He said his business — which includes a hostel, bed and breakfast and guided hiking tours through Gros Morne — served thousands of people this summer, most of them from Ontario.

Fishers' Loft Inn/Facebook
Fishers' Loft Inn/Facebook

"'The tap turned back on' is the expression. We've had a fantastic season. Our numbers are about the same as they were in 2019," he said.

"It's been a different season for sure but overall far better than the last two years. Night and day."

'A lot of people are on the move'

In March 2020, Bruce Sparkes, managing director of Clayton Hospitality, told CBC News the business's hotels in Gander, Clarenville and St. John's were going into cost-cutting mode to try to hold on as large conferences, sports and concerts — all big sources of revenue — were cancelling in droves due to travel restrictions.

Most tourism operators at the time could only try to weather the storm. The provincial government kicked in $25 million in May 2020 through a tourism and hospitality support program to help the struggling industry.

In November 2021 the province officially launched Come Home Year 2022 — and with it, $4 million for communities to spruce up their towns and offer new programming in anticipation of officially welcoming people back to the Rock and the Big Land.

Submitted by Ray Dwyer
Submitted by Ray Dwyer

On Tuesday, Sparkes said the difference between summer 2022 and summer 2020 is "black and white."

"It was a very, very good summer. A lot of people are on the move," said Sparkes. "Last year wasn't too bad but 2020 was disastrous.… This summer is probably going to be one of the best we've ever had."

Destination St. John's told CBC News year-to-date hotel performance as of July 31 was on target to match 2019 numbers of guest rooms sold. The tourism marketing organization said it considers the numbers encouraging, given continuing challenges with new COVID-19 variants, a rental car shortage and air travel capacity that is still below pre-pandemic levels.

From 2015 to 2019, the organization said, St. John's hosted about 95 to 100 conferences — attracting on average, 21,000 to 23,000 delegates a year — and sporting events each year. The group estimates 2022 will see about 65 to 70 per cent of that.

Booming business

Ray Dwyer, owner of Red Ochre Café in Conception Bay North, opened his doors in 2019. Only a few months later COVID-19 swept the globe.

"I'm to a point now I can't handle the business I got," said Dwyer of his busy summer near the popular Northern Bay Sands beach. "I'm turning away tables every single day."

To the north, on Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula, Luke Fisher, the general manager of Fishers' Loft Innis also enjoying a bustling summer in the picturesque and tourism-heavy Port Rexton.

In May 2020 the Fisher family — facing drastic change in operations due to COVID-19 restrictions at a point when less was known about the coronavirus — decided not to open their inn for the season.

But the business hung on and reopened in 2021 for staycationers. In 2022, Fisher said, business has been booming with most of his customers coming from across Canada and the United States.

"This year our numbers have been really, really good. We're feeling like it's almost back to what it used to be," he said.

"We're all very pleased to be back up and running. It's very strange to be locked up in your house for a summer."

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