West Coast resorts won’t be sprinting into the type of bustling tourist season the region has come to expect next month, but they will be opening their doors in hopes of restarting the successful tourism marathon their towns’ economies have depended on for the past two decades.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed, we’re going to take it one day at a time and we’re going to make sure that we do everything in our power to keep our staff and our guests safe,” JJ Belanger told the Westerly News.
“If, at anytime, something changes, if something went awry, we would obviously go right back to ground zero, to stopping tourists from coming to town, shuttering our businesses et cetera. But, we need to reopen. We need to get the tourist economy in our communities back up and running.”
Belanger is the general manager of Tofino’s Crystal Cove Beach Resort, which is expected to reopen at roughly 30 per cent capacity on June 1 with an aim to be up to 50 per cent by the end of June and for the remainder of the summer.
“That might increase a little bit, but I really don’t see it at this point. It’s going to be a different summer and it’s a good thing too because none of us want to overwhelm our healthcare system. The number one priority is we’ve got to take care of Tofitians and Ucluetians,” Belanger said. “All of us are taking this very seriously…We’re going to ease into this slowly and you have to understand that we are doing everything in our world to keep you safe as a local.”
Tim Hackett of Tofino’s Long Beach Lodge Resort said the lodge was forced to let go of roughly 60 employees when the coronavirus pandemic caused tourists to vanish from the Coast in March and added that many local businesses have been braving the same economically terrifying waters.
“There’s a terrific number of people in the community who are out of work and haven’t had any work for over 10 weeks now. So, it’s had a devastating financial impact,” he said. “There’s literally hundreds of people that are out of work and businesses that are really suffering. Some businesses, I think, may not recover from this. So, while we have to be very cautious from the health perspective, we also have to consider the economic fallout and we have to give it care as well.”
Belanger said he has been “living, eating, breathing, sleeping COVID” in preparation of reopening and has developed what he calls a COVID Playbook for his staff and guests, a snapshot of which can be found on Crystal Cove’s website.
“It changes daily and you have to be able to adapt,” he said, adding that the slower pace of summer will be “a great opportunity” for resort staff to be trained to the ‘new normal,’ but won’t be close to what’s needed to recoup the financial devastation caused by the tourism shut down.
“In the beginning, it was very nerve-wracking, so I do believe the community did the right thing by saying, ‘Don’t come here now, it’s not the right time,” he said. “There’s a lot of damage that’s been done to businesses in both communities. Some businesses have not survived. Some may choose not to open this summer. It’s going to be a very different summer on the coast for sure…I don’t think we’ll ever make up the losses that we had. That money is gone.”
Hackett said his Long Beach Lodge team will consider the season a success if they can break even.
“It’s not a case of all of a sudden coming rushing back and we’re able to wipe out our losses quickly, we’ll be lucky if we can do it at all this year,” he said. “There’s not going to be thousands of people in Tofino, that’s not going to happen.”
Long Beach Lodge plans to open on June 3, but only to B.C. residents and strictly by reservation, according to Hackett, who added guests may be subject to temperature checks.
“There’s a lot of protocols going in place for the safety of everybody. It will not be business like usual,” Hackett said, adding keys will be delivered to guests’ rooms and no cleaning staff will enter their rooms during the duration of their stay.
“Business volumes are going to be down. I don’t think we’re going to see a great number of people coming during June. I think it’s good to get our systems in place and get our staff trained to the new regulations and protocols.”
He said the Lodge’s restaurant will remain closed to start, though may open at half-capacity later in the summer, while its outside patio will be open for takeout and room service.
Hackett believes Tofino is in a relatively good position because it does not rely on cruise ship traffic or large indoor attractions and is a very popular destination amongst British Columbians.
“I think a lot of people in Canada that would normally have gone to Europe or the States on holidays will change their plans and a lot of them will come to Tofino. Tofino just seems to be so popular and, I think, people feel it’s safe,” he said. “And, even on the longer term, I think you’re going to see people avoiding big cities and big masses of population, coming to smaller places…I think, compared to other places, we’re going to do very well.”
Belanger noted that travellers have had their finances heavily impacted as well, so British Columbians will have smaller budgets causing them to more likely vacation in-province.
“The financial impact to most people has been dramatic, so they’re not going to be going very far away for vacations for the near future…Tofino is in a good place because we have a great reputation and we’re a great place to vacation. I think we will benefit from Canadians and B.C.’ers staying at home this summer and looking for places to go but, until international travel resumes, you’re not going to see Tofino be at 100 per cent occupancy anytime soon,” he said. “The most promising thing I’m seeing is that people haven’t given up on the thought of coming back to Tofino. From what we’re hearing from all our guests, they still love this place and they can’t wait return.”
In Ucluelet, the town’s largest resort doesn’t plan to open until June 15.
“We’re being overly cautious and we’re aware of how the community feels. We don’t want to have an influx of 300 people coming into town too soon and overwhelming everybody, so we’re holding off. Financially, it’s impacted us a lot, but we’re conscious of the impact that we’re going to have if we have an opening on June 1 and have all those tourists hit us at once,” said Black Rock Oceanfront Resort’s general manager Ted Bailey. “We’re not going to make it so it’s Black Rock overwhelming the community…We’re helping the community ease into this.”
He said the resort plans to open at 30 per cent capacity and hopes to attract B.C. travellers looking to stay closer to home this summer.
“We get most of the tourists in Ucluelet because we’ve got so many rooms,” he said. “It will make the residents feel a lot safer if they just see B.C. [licence] plates. We have to really be aware of how the community feels.”
He added the tourism void has had a “huge impact” on the resort and its staff.
“Basically, we went from 130 employees down to four,” he said. “Our staff, who are mainly local residents, are really anxious financially that they need to get back to work.”
He said the resort will be operating under strict COVID-19 protocols, will not be hosting any weddings in June and its restaurant will be open at half-capacity.
He hopes the community understands the steps the resort is taking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and suggested the resort’s staff will be key ambassadors.
“When they leave work and go home and let everybody at home know that we’re really being cautious and following the procedures, that might put everybody at ease a little bit more,” he said.
Bailey added that he’s been in the hotel business since 1969 and has never experienced anything like the recent economic shutdown before, suggesting the pandemic has given him a new perspective on community health.
“My awareness for the community and the well-being of the community has never been to this heightened level before. My kids live here, my grandkids live here and I have to be conscious of their safety and their friends’ safety and, I think, it’s made me a new person to be more aware of everyone around me. And, how am I going to get my people back to work so they can make a living for themselves? How do I operate the resort so that everybody stays safe? It keeps me awake at night,” he said. “My awareness of the community and not just as the manager of the Black Rock, plays a big factor in all the decisions that I’m making here and I can’t remember when that’s ever happened to me before.”
He added Black Rock is a major contributor to Ucluelet’s Municipal and Regional District Tax—formerly known as the additional hotel room tax— which largely fuels the budget of the town’s Destination Marketing Organization, Tourism Ucluelet.
“Their budget is funded two-thirds by the Black Rock Resort and, if we don’t get the accommodation tax that they’re used to, their budget’s going to be one-third of what it was before and that’s going to affect everybody,” he said. “It’s a wait and see and I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
Tourism Ucluelet executive director Denise Stys-Norman and Tourism Tofino executive director Nancy Cameron both declined to answer the Westerly’s questions about the upcoming tourist season and how each DMO plans to promote their respective destinations, but issued the following joint statement.
“Although the full impact of COVID-19 to our tourism economy has yet to be quantified, it has been staggering for our small region. West Coast tourism businesses rely on spring visitor-generated revenue to cover overhead and operating costs until they reach the more profitable summer months. The COVID-19 crisis interrupted this and has placed many businesses in extremely difficult and stressful financial situations, and has put many people out of work.
“For those businesses that were able to remain open, they have adapted to the new provincial health guidelines by being creative and collaborative. This has provided a sense of normalcy during this unprecedented time,” the statement reads. “The Province of BC and both municipalities have led us expertly through this crisis. When non-essential travel restrictions are lifted, we will gradually be inviting visitors back to the West Coast to enjoy our natural environment and the vastness of special experiences that it offers.”
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