Uncertain future for Vanouver Island tourism as pandemic 'circuit breaker' rules expected to ease

·3 min read
The historical and fictional dioramas at Victoria's Miniature World include a small-scale model of the long-running local agricultural exhibition, the Saanich Fair. (Miniature World/ Facebook - image credit)
The historical and fictional dioramas at Victoria's Miniature World include a small-scale model of the long-running local agricultural exhibition, the Saanich Fair. (Miniature World/ Facebook - image credit)

For the downtown Victoria tourist attraction Miniature World, revenues couldn't get much tinier.

Manager Megan Kellar said visitors to see their scaled-down dioramas dropped sharply after the B.C. government announced expanded "circuit-breaker" measures at the end of March, including bans on non-essential travel and accommodation bookings.

"This would be a really crazy busy day for us, especially right in the middle of the afternoon," Kellar said. "But I actually think we've only had one customer today."

Miniature World is among an estimated 3,000-plus tourism businesses on Vancouver Island, based on 2017 industry figures, which put the sector among the region's top economic drivers. That was before it was crushed by the pandemic.

An unscientific sampling of tourism owners and operators on the Island reflected common concerns about the urgency of providing a clear roadmap for easing restrictions and in particular, for reopening borders.

Many are anxiously waiting to hear the B.C. government's recovery plans to be announced May 25, looking for ways to make up at least past of the past year's losses this summer.

Butterflies feed on fruit at Victoria Butterfly Gardens in Central Saanich.
Butterflies feed on fruit at Victoria Butterfly Gardens in Central Saanich.(Victoria Butterfly Gardens)

A year ago, Victoria Butterfly Gardens reopened its conservatory and collection of exotic butterflies and tropical creatures to the public after a couple of months of keeping the plants and animals alive but the doors closed.

"It's a lot slower, of course, without the cruise ships and any international travel of any kind," general manager Ronalea Rischmiller said.

However, increased visits and annual pass purchases by locals has helped offset the loss of charter buses full of out-of-towners over the past year.

Rischmiller said government subsidies helped get Butterfly Gardens through the worst of the pandemic setbacks and she's optimistic for more customers and further reopening as vaccination rates rise.

Pandemic restrictions on gatherings meant a loss of wedding-venue business for Dolphins Resort near Campbell River. Cabin rentals and the Anglers restaurant also closed during the spring 'circuit-breaker' measures.
Pandemic restrictions on gatherings meant a loss of wedding-venue business for Dolphins Resort near Campbell River. Cabin rentals and the Anglers restaurant also closed during the spring 'circuit-breaker' measures.(Dolphins Resort Campbell River)

At Dolphins Resort near Campbell River, general manager Paul Dowler prepares to reopen their dozen oceanfront cabins and Anglers restaurant after the 'circuit-breaker' restrictions on indoor dining and non-local lodging guests expires.

Unlike many newer, highly leveraged lodges and wilderness tour providers, Dowler says Dolphins Resort will weather the pandemic.

But the current inability to confirm bookings even far in advance may drive international customers to other destinations that are ready to serve them, he said.

"We're talking to a lot of people, Americans in particular, that are vaccinated and they're ready to travel," Dowler said. "And it's hard to make them feel like they're welcomed when you don't have any kind of a guideline to lay out for them as to what the future is going to be."

Campbell River Whale Watching owner Stephen Gabrysh says he and similar business operators on the North Island have experienced 70-90 per cent revenue declines during the pandemic, with the loss of international customers seeking experiences such as ocean rapids tours.
Campbell River Whale Watching owner Stephen Gabrysh says he and similar business operators on the North Island have experienced 70-90 per cent revenue declines during the pandemic, with the loss of international customers seeking experiences such as ocean rapids tours.(Campbell River Whale Watching)

Campbell River Whale Watching owner Stephen Gabrysh is one of those newer tour providers. He bought his business four years ago. He's also president of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association.

"In a normal season, you know, up to 60, 70 per cent of our business would be international with a lot of that primarily being from Europe and some American."

With the borders closed, Gabrysh estimates his business lost 70 per cent of revenues in 2020, and colleagues in the industry have lost 70 to 90 per cent.

With files from CBC Radio's On the Island

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