The whale-watching industry — a major draw for Newfoundland and Labrador, attracting tourists and locals alike — is rebounding this year, although seasoned operators say it will take a while for the business to get back to pre-pandemic levels.
Since Newfoundland and Labrador opened its borders to fully vaccinated visitors from within Canada on July 1, operators are seeing an uptick in business.
But Michael Gatherall, owner of Gatheralls Puffin and Whale Watch in Bay Bulls, just south of St. John's, says the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years.
"As each day goes by, I mean, we are seeing more and more people from across different parts of Canada," he said. "We are starting to see some folks from western Canada.… It's certainly a very marked improvement over 2020, but still a long ways to go yet."
Gatherall joined forces with O'Brien's Boat Tours last year to weather the pandemic. The partnership, which is called GO Tours and was a success for both businesses, has been renewed for the 2021 season.
Ocean Quest Adventures in Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove has also managed to stay afloat during the pandemic.
The key to success, says owner Rick Stanley, was offering a broad spectrum of activities beyond whale watching, like kayaking or scuba diving.
"We're so diversified.… Our season is probably a lot longer because the tourists don't usually start arriving until June, July and August," said Stanley. "We have two boats here. We usually only have one boat, so it's working out pretty good for us."
A slow path out
The way out of the pandemic, Stanley agrees, will be a long one.
"There's a slow uptake from what I'm hearing in the industry because of the slow out-of-the-gate opening up," said Stanley. "It's gonna be slow, and hopefully everybody will ride this wave out."
While Stanley is grateful for government support the industry has received from both the federal and provincial level, he thinks the timing of the province's reopening caused many national tourists to stay away.
"What we're seeing here is families, families that have a relation in our province … but the tourists who had to plan to travel, they're still staying at home," said Stanley.
The tour boat industry usually runs from June to September and is modelled along the province's two major natural attractions in summer — whales and icebergs. Gatherall hopes the impact of the late international border opening won't be felt in future seasons.
"From an international perspective, we've lost much of 2021," he said. "We may see a little bit of international traffic perhaps in September but … most of those people would have now moved on to other destinations, maybe put Newfoundland onto the backburner for another year or several years, which is unfortunate."
It was very slow to respond to the international border and we're still dealing with a lot of that fallout."
Gatherall's boats will be out on the water until Sept. 20, and maybe even longer.
Rebuilding what was lost in the pandemic, says Gatherall, will likely take his business two to three years.
Stanley is hopeful the province's pandemic response will be an appealing factor for visitors.
"Newfoundland and Labrador's doing a great job and I think the world is noticing," he said.
"I think we are going to be that safe haven for travel in the very near future and hopefully that very near future is next year."