Reopening B.C.: COVID-19 hits tourism hard, operators hope to entice locals to be tourists at home

B.C.’s tourism industry estimates revenues to be one third of previously anticipated $21 billion-plus year

Author of the article:Gordon HoekstraPublishing date:Jun 26, 2020  •  Last Updated 2 months ago  

VANCOUVER, June 16, 2020 - Sylvie Hennebert of Prince of Whales at Granville Island as B.C. businesses recovering from COVID-19 start to open,  in Vancouver, BC., on June 16, 2020. (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG)   00061697A ORG XMIT: 00061697A [PNG Merlin Archive]
Sylvie Hennebert of Prince of Whales at Granville Island with the new vessel the company received just as COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in B.C. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

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In anticipation another record year for tourism in B.C., one of the province’s whale-watching tour operators took possession of a new boat in March.

The delivery of the boat to Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures coincided with the implementation of unprecedented measures in B.C. to halt the spread of coronavirus and the closures of international borders.

Reopening B.C.: COVID-19 hits tourism hard, operators hope to entice locals to be tourists at home

The effect of those measures — implemented and felt around the world — brought a halt to international travel and tourist visits here.

“By all indications we were ready for the most historically successful season we could have ever had,” said the Prince of Whales’ controller, Ian MacPhee. “And then it just disappeared over night. We went from booking people to people demanding their money back.”

The whale watching season normally starts in May and the sector is hoping to restart on July 1 when the federal government is set to lift a ban on the operation of vessels with a capacity of more than 12 people. The go-ahead also needs clearance from the province.

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With the disappearance of international visitors, which account for the bulk of their passengers, MacPhee says they hope to entice local people to come out and spend a day with them.

Because they have boats with 200 seats and will only be using 50 seats, there will be a lot of distancing space for people, he said.

VANCOUVER, June 16, 2020 - Sylvie Hennebert of Prince of Whales at Granville Island as B.C. businesses recovering from COVID-19 start to open,  in Vancouver, BC., on June 16, 2020. (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG)   00061697A ORG XMIT: 00061697A [PNG Merlin Archive]
The new vessel ordered by Prince of Whales arrived just as B.C. was ordered into lockdown. PHOTO BY NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

With 14 boats and a normal staff complement of about 75, Prince of Whales operates tours from Granville Island in Vancouver, from Victoria and from Telegraph Cove on the north end of Vancouver Island.

Initially they believed they might be able to capture 25 per cent of their regular business, but that estimate has been scaled back to 10 to 15 per cent, said MacPhee.

The tourism sector — largely a seasonal business, particularly for tour operators — was among the first and hardest hit sectors from the global pandemic. It is also likely to be the last to recover, says Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C.

A recent report by the B.C. Regional Tourism Secretariat — based on a May 25 to June 5 survey — showed only five per cent of firms are operating with business as usual.

While businesses are rehiring workers, it’s still a small fraction of those laid off or not hired due to COVID-19, showed the survey of 713 firms.

More than three quarters of the firms said they would need to make more than 50 per cent of their typical sales to make it worthwhile to stay open through the summer.

Tourism had been growing in British Columbia, generating more than $20 billion in revenues in 2018, the latest figures available. Revenues were expected to top $21 billion in another record year in 2020.

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Judas said even when the tourism sector gets going at some point this summer, revenues will likely only be one third of what would have been expected.

“I think they’re trying to find the means to be able to stay alive,” said Judas. “Some are packing it in. Some are barely hanging on by a thread. And there’s the odd one that can retain their business, at least for another month or two. But the longer this goes on, the worse it gets.”

The hotel sector, a major component of the tourism sector, has also been hit hard by the pandemic.

As of the middle of June, 56,400 people remained laid off in the sector and 35 per cent of hotels remain closed in B.C.

With the announced phase 3 reopening this week, which encourages travel within B.C., hotels may have the confidence to open.

“We’re ready to try to save our summer,” said Ingrid Jarrett, president and CEO of the B.C. Hotel Association.

Asked what to expect from hotels post-COVID, Jarrett pointed to adjustments like no-touch check-in and check-outs, one-way lobbies, increased flexibility in check-in and check-out times, and more conspicuous cleaning.

“It used to be that we tried to be invisible with our cleaning standards,” she said. “I think now we’ll want to really be in the public areas, to make sure that people are confident that that is occurring.”

But challenges remain, including that revenues are not enough to cover fixed costs, working capital is non-existent and the hard costs to reopen are significant, she said.

With the disappearance of international visitors — and the expectation that international borders will remain closed this summer — the B.C. tourism sector is turning to locals, hoping to entice them to become tourists in their own province.

Bike touring in the Whistler area. Photo courtesy of Ash Conrad, owner of Whistler eBike Tours. Handout. 2019 filer [PNG Merlin Archive]
Bike touring in the Whistler area. PHOTO BY HANDOUT /PNG

Ash Conrad, who owns eBike Tours in Whistler, is doing just that.

He’s partnered with Epic Rides, which provides express bus service from Vancouver to Whistler, putting together a round-trip day package that includes lunch at a “hippie” café and a 2½-hour guided bike tour.

The hope is to draw people from the Lower Mainland who might not be hard-core bikers for the electric bike tour, said Conrad.

His tour business, which also relies on international visitors, has been devastated.

He said he doesn’t even expect 10 per cent of his normal business. “It’s completely obliterated here,” he said.

But Conrad considers himself lucky in some ways because his business is small and he believes he will be able to survive the year. Normally, he has two other guides, but it is just he and a bike mechanic now.

However, Jarrett said drawing from locals will not be enough for the hotel sector.

“As long as the messaging at the provincial level is about staying close to home, and not welcoming other Canadians to travel — the industry will not survive 2020. It is that simple,” said Jarrett.

Like other sectors, tourism has been able to tap the federal government’s loan, rent and wage subsidy programs.

However, tourism businesses in B.C. are lobbying to keep the wage subsidy program extended beyond the end of August as their truncated season will be just getting underway. The tourism sector in B.C. is also asking the provincial and federal governments to consider some kind of working capital grant for tourism operators who face diminished cash flows.

MacPhee, who is managing Prince of Whales’ finances, says it’s a question of generating enough money during their season that normally runs until the end of October.

“How do we survive a winter without the summer’s income?”

Jarrett, the hotel association CEO, says government programs are simply not enough.

Key issues for the sector are business loans with a competitive interest rate and extended repayment time frames, and property tax relief.

With files from Harrison Mooney

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