Southeastern P.E.I. businesses long for return to normal ferry service

·5 min read
Robert Lawlor, who owns Cliffside Inn, a four-star inn located in Little Sands, has in the past done a lot of business from people crossing on Northumberland Ferries and wanting a stop close to the terminal in Wood Islands.   (Robert Lawlor - image credit)
Robert Lawlor, who owns Cliffside Inn, a four-star inn located in Little Sands, has in the past done a lot of business from people crossing on Northumberland Ferries and wanting a stop close to the terminal in Wood Islands. (Robert Lawlor - image credit)

Robert Lawlor says he's counting down the days until Atlantic borders reopen to travel with fewer COVID-19 restrictions and Northumberland Ferries resumes normal passenger service.

Lawlor owns Cliffside Inn, a four-star inn located in Little Sands, only seven kilometres from the Wood Islands ferry terminal.

The former TV producer moved to P.E.I. in 2013 and renovated the inn, nestled on the edge of the red cliffs of southeastern P.E.I.

Business continued to build year after year until, as Lawlor described it, "COVID chaos" hit last summer.

"I've always had guests who are coming on [the Island] late at night and staying … with me for a night before springing off to other parts of the Island, or people who are wrapping up their vacation and they want to be near the ferry so they don't have to travel that morning," Lawlor said, looking out through the window of his inn at the Northumberland Strait.

"Having that ferry open and getting connected to the rest of the country is huge."

'We hope to be able to ramp up'

Northumberland Ferries resumed service for the 2021 season on May 3, but for commercial large-truck traffic only because of worrisome COVID-19 case counts in Nova Scotia, across the strait.

Public health measures in place in both Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are limiting anything but essential travel between the two Maritime provinces, with only a few exceptions.

Don Cormier, vice-president and general manager of Northumberland Ferries, said commercial traffic has been lower than expected since the service resumed. He blames the pandemic.

Northumberland Ferries resumed service on May 3, but for commercial large-truck traffic only.
Northumberland Ferries resumed service on May 3, but for commercial large-truck traffic only. (Kevin Baillie)

Only about 15 to 20 per cent of the ferry's traffic is commercial in a normal year, which means this May has imposed a significant blow to revenues and hiring.

Only about half of the company's nearly 200 employees are back to work, Cormier said.

"When the reopening plans are available and we have a better understanding of what segments [are allowed], or what traffic and what service levels we should be offering, we hope to be able to ramp up our employment at that time," he said.

'Essential to the economy'

Cormier said Northumberland Ferries is working to get ready for a possible reopening of the border, whenever that happens.

The company's second ship, the Holiday Island, will start making its trek from drydock in Quebec to P.E.I. on Thursday, and will be ready to be put into service as soon as the province gives the green light.

The second of NFL's two ferries, the Holiday Island, will start making its trek from drydock in Quebec to P.E.I. on Thursday.
The second of NFL's two ferries, the Holiday Island, will start making its trek from drydock in Quebec to P.E.I. on Thursday.(François Pierre Dufault/Radio-Canada)

"I think ferry service is essential to the economy of not just eastern P.E.I. but communities like Cape Breton," he said.

Many years, tourists who've been in Cape Breton will carry on to Prince Edward Island "because the ferry is there — or vice versa," Cormier said.

"It's also an attraction. I think the experience on board, the seaside experiences that we offer, the food, the music, make for a very enjoyable way of travelling."

Wood Islands Village in limbo

Jill Harris, administrator for the Wood Islands and Area Development Corporation, said the parking lot has been quiet at Wood Islands Village since the borders were closed. She's looking forward to a return to normal once passenger travel is allowed on the Northumberland Ferries run.

The corporation operates the village, which includes retail businesses, a visitor information centre and a liquor store as well as a community hall, only a stone's throw from the ferry terminal.

"Our organization totally depends on commerce and visitors from away," she said.

"We always love to have the visitors and guests come by as a first stop shop for those that are interested in eastern Prince Edward Island."

'I'd like to ask him what the plan is'

Back at the inn, Lawlor said he never thought this time last summer that he'd be looking at a second summer of COVID-19 uncertainty.

When asked what he'd say to P.E.I.'s premier, if he had a chance to have coffee with Dennis King on the deck of his inn, Lawlor said: "First of all, I'd like to ask him what the plan is."

The Cliffside Inn, a four-star inn located in Little Sands, is only seven kilometres from the Wood Islands ferry terminal. The lack of passenger service has been a blow, says its owner.
The Cliffside Inn, a four-star inn located in Little Sands, is only seven kilometres from the Wood Islands ferry terminal. The lack of passenger service has been a blow, says its owner. (Robert Lawlor )

King is expected to outline the province's reopening plan on Thursday.

But how much detail will be contained in that plan is still unknown, including whether there will actually be a date for the reopening of the Atlantic bubble, which last summer and fall allowed residents of the four easternmost provinces of Canada to travel freely in the Atlantic region without having to isolate.

Lawlor said he'd like to see the premier roll out a promotion, much like the province did for restaurants, but for Islanders to stay in accommodations at a reduced rate.

"People like me can't afford to just drop our rates. Our overhead and our margins are so small that we can't just be slashing our prices in half."

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