Departure Bay as seen from atop Sugarloaf Mountain. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)

Tourism industry could only try to make the best of things this summer

With fewer visitors this year, operators asking for continued support

In a year unlike any other, Nanaimo made the best of things, even if not as many visitors came to see us.

As summer winds down, businesses and tourism operators can feel like they did the best they could, all things considered. The novel coronavirus seemed like something that was faraway as spring approached, and then all of a sudden, it was here, and spring was cancelled, and a lot of scheduled summer fun, too.

“I think we all try to feel hopeful that we did what we could with what we had,” said Karen Bannister, executive director of Tourism Nanaimo. “We are a destination as Vancouver Island, so people did come to our Island to enjoy a vacation. Was it a summer like before? No.”

As the pandemic progressed, provincial health officials relaxed some of the health and safety restrictions, and some travel was encouraged within British Columbia. Bannister said Nanaimo capitalized on some of that, with people from urban centres who had been cooped up inside during the spring eager to enjoy the Island’s wide-open outdoor spaces.

“It was super quiet in the spring, and then June 1 hit and the provincial parks opened and everybody wanted to get out of their houses,” said Sarah Littlejohn, co-owner and marketing director of Living Forest Oceanside Campground.

She said visitor numbers were pretty close to normal in the summer, and people who were visiting were able to do a lot of the “amazing outdoor activities” that drew them to Nanaimo.

“Most of them that are coming here are coming because of what Nanaimo is and where we’re located,” said Dan Brady, executive director of the Nanaimo Hospitality Association. “We’re paddling, we’re kayaking, we’re mountain biking, we’re in the forest, walking to streams and rivers and waterfalls and there’s lots of that.”

But although campgrounds were busy, hotels weren’t. Brady said there were a few good weeks, but added that even if hotels were able to fill a lot of their rooms, the excess inventory drove rates down.

“All things considered in the accommodation sector, we did OK,” he said. “Not good, but OK.”

Brady pointed to the hospitality association’s ‘We’re Ready for You’ campaign during the summer and said businesses took that to heart and were diligent about being cleaner and safer than ever.

“If you looked at the campaign, you didn’t see much about ‘book this’ or ‘take advantage of this rate offer,’” he said. “It was all just, we’re clean, we’re cleaning, we’re safe and we’re following protocols.”

READ ALSO: Nanaimo tourism contest assures visitors ‘we’re ready for you’

Bannister said that was important, as tourists wanted those assurances. She said a lot of the calls to the visitor information centre were inquiries about what tourists should expect regarding safety protocols. People wanted to know they were welcome, and were assured they were.

“Our operators demonstrated a lot of resiliency, tuning into the health and safety protocols and consumer confidence messaging,” Bannister said. “Tourism Vancouver Island’s resiliency program that we developed was really trying to make sure that they had that information, as well, whenever they needed our support.”

Tourism businesses will now need support from a few different sources. The Tourism Industry Association of B.C. had asked that $680 million of the provincial government’s $1.5-billion pandemic recovery package go to tourism and in a bulletin to members last week, counted $100 million to support tourism, as well as $300 million for recovery grants for small- and medium-sized businesses.

Brady said those in the industry had been anxious to hear more about government support, noting that there are no conventions coming, no sports tourism and no group tours booked.

“We got through the summer, but now is crunch time. We need some big support or we won’t have a tourism industry in 2021 and 2022,” he said.

Bannister said the tourism industry strongly supports ongoing conversations with the government about recognizing the industry’s needs.

“Unlike an appliance store where the demand may always be there, we’re more of a discretionary investment and we’ve got a long road of recovery ahead of us,” she said.

In the short term, Bannister said she’s hopeful that fall travel will be brisk and that British Columbians can be encouraged to come to Nanaimo for an extended weekend holiday to explore the outdoors. Brady said hospitality providers hope people will travel the Island, use Nanaimo as a hub and shop local and support local.

“The positive spin, really, is the businesses themselves and the resiliency that they’ve demonstrated,” he said. “Some businesses have suffered great losses and challenges and we recognize that, but they’re still passionate and they’re still working really hard.”

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READ ALSO: B.C. reopening but tourism facing long-term recovery, say Vancouver Island MLAs

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