In the three months since the doors to his Robson Street souvenir shop were boarded up, Chris Cheung made one sale: two pairs of plaid onesie pyjamas, emblazoned with the words "bear cheeks" on the button-up rear, to a buyer in Australia.
Cheung, who manages Canadian Crafts and Gifts, needs to sell more than just two $50 cotton jumpsuits to pay his bills this summer and it's not looking good. COVID-19 has resulted in an almost complete lack of international tourism in Vancouver, threatening the future of a store that's been in his family for three generations.
"It's going to be a little bit of a rough year," he said.
B.C.'s tourism industry generated more than $20 billion in revenue in 2018. With international travel almost non-existent and large cruise ships banned from Canadian ports, it's expected to take a drastic hit this year.
Until now, Cheung's family has only seen growth in the business. His grandfather opened the store in the early 1970s after immigrating to Canada from Hong Kong. Initially, he sold Asian gifts and products. When Cheung's uncle took over several years later, the store began to sell more Canadiana-inspired items and business took off.
"In 1986 we had Expo. And then the cruises start going in more consistently, and after that [the Olympics] in 2010, and that was huge," Cheung said.
"When the Canucks would do well, we would do well," he added.
Now he's grappling with a store full of unsold stock and wondering how he can sell souvenirs without tourists around to buy them, and during a year most would rather forget.
'A representation of who Canadians are'
Gabe Garfinkel hopes British Columbians exploring their own province this summer reconsider what a souvenir — by definition a reminder of a person, place or event — can be.
Garfinkel is the general manager of Native Northwest, a Vancouver-based business that sells items designed by Indigenous artists to souvenir shops and individuals. He estimates a majority of retailers have had a decline in revenue of at least 90 per cent since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Locals might have no use for a Canada flag keychain, a Mountie snow globe or a moose magnet. But, instead, Native Northwest sells items like bags made by Salish weavers, umbrellas with colourful prints of the thunderbird, children's books and mugs printed with images of sasquatch — which is the "master" of physical distancing, according to the store's website.
You don't need to be a tourist in the traditional sense to buy items like these, Garfinkel said.
"It's not necessarily a tourism item, it's a Canadian item, it's a British Columbian item, it's a representation of who Canadians are," Garfinkel said.
"For businesses in retail and tourism to stay alive, they really need British Columbians now more than ever to book their vacations in the province, to go for drives and to visit local small businesses and buy beautiful British Columbian products."
Cheung is thinking a lot more about what local tourists might want from a souvenir shop. He has focused more on having an online presence and is promoting items like Canada flags, reusable masks and Indigenous jewelry.
But the future of his storefront shop — the cornerstone of his family's legacy in souvenirs — remains precarious.
Cheung plans to reopen his storefront in mid-July, which would usually be the busiest time of the year, and he's in discussion with his landlord to renegotiate the store's rent.
Around him, other stores are struggling. OK Gifts, one of his biggest competitors, recently closed three of its stores in Vancouver, Banff, Alta., and Niagara Falls, Ont., after almost 50 years in business.
Cheung doesn't know how long he can remain in business unless sales pick up.
"I'm going to be losing money for the next year," he said.
"Summer is where we make up for all the rest of the months. So this year is going to be a big hit."