Southern Shore tourism operators cautiously hopeful for ‘Come Home Year’

By Patrick Newhook/January 20, 2022

With the province in Alert Level 4 and COVID-19 cases still higher than last year, tourism operators are wondering how this will impact their summer season.

Since 2020, businesses have seen numerous setbacks due to COVID-19. Restrictions put in place to slow the pandemic have impaired their ability to work as normal.

If the case numbers do come down, 2022 could be a busy year for tourism businesses. With the province promoting it as a Come Home Year, hopes are high this summer will be a busy one.

Bay Bulls is home to several popular tourism businesses.

Jonathan Earle is the co-owner of The Outfitters Adventures and Recreational Services. The business has a store in St. John’s and offers sea kayaking adventures in Bay Bulls. Since the start of COVID-19, their outdoor adventures have been halted.

“Basically, our traffic stopped,” said Earle. “We really depend on people visiting Newfoundland, coming from outside of the province, outside of the country, around the world to visit and explore, and with travel bans in place, and people’s uneasiness with traveling, our traffic just dropped off and we decided not to operate our kayaking business from Bay Bulls.”

The business hasn’t held its sea kayaking tours since 2020. Hopes were high for the business as it saw the upcoming summer as it’s comeback, but now with Alert Level 4, it’s not so certain anymore.

“You know, if you had asked me this a month ago, we were starting to make plans and put things in place and have conversations with people,” said Earle. “We were feeling confident about this summer. With the Omicron variant that’s rolling around, we’ve sort of stopped and are wondering again. (We’re) less excited. It’s still five, six months away from that season and a lot can change and hopefully it will, but it’s hard to stay positive with the current situation.”

Earle likes the idea of a provincial ‘Come Home Year,’ but isn’t sure if it will be enough for the sea kayaking business.

“I think it’s a good initiative. I think there needs to be something to drive people home to visit Newfoundland or drive visitors to Newfoundland,” he said. “Will a ‘Come Home Year’ give us the kind of boost we really need? It will draw traffic, but I don’t know if it will give really the required traffic or the volume of traffic we’re used to, or that we would want when we decided to go into the sea kayaking tour business.”

Earle is hoping to restart the kayak tours, but is expecting fewer tourists.

“I think we’ll be operating on a reduced schedule. I don’t think we’ll have the volume that we had other years, typically late June, through July, August early September (when) we’re operating seven days a week, twice a day,” said Earle. “I could see us moving to a reduced schedule of three to five days a week, once maybe twice a day. I don’t think the volumes will be there to have a traditional operation. But the whales will be there, and the puffins will be there and likely the icebergs and the attractions will still be there. Maybe people will surprise me.”

Bay Bulls is also home to several boat tours operations. Gatherall’s Puffin and Whale Watch is one of the oldest and most popular boat tour operators in Newfoundland. Co-owner Mike Gatherall said that prior to COVID-19, business was great.

“In 2017, -18, -19 business was actually increasing,” said Gatherall. “2019 was a fabulous year and 2020, prior to the onset of COVID, was set to be the busiest year yet.”

“It was one way we decided to work through COVID,” said Gatherall.

This year, Gatherall is feeling ‘cautiously optimistic,’ saying that if cases are low and people can travel without isolating, then things will continue to look good.

“Right now, advanced bookings and everything are back on par with what they would’ve been in the start of 2020. We are seeing that rebound, but again it’s going to come down to whether or not people are able to travel in or out of the province without restrictions,” said Gatherall.

As for the Come Home Year, Gatherall welcomes it.

“We certainly welcome people to come back home,” said Gatherall. “It’s a marketing initiative, we do have a lot of expat Newfoundlanders and a lot of them do come home anyway and I would anticipate a lot of people who were unable to come home in either 2020 or 2021 would be anxiously chomping at the bit to come home, ‘Come Home Year’ or not.”

While the ‘Come Home Year’ may help, Gatherall is still focusing on the traditional tourism market for customers.

“It certainly wouldn’t hurt by any stretch, but it’s not necessarily what we are relying on,” he explained. “A non-resident, a person with no affiliation to Newfoundland who comes on a holiday, is probably going to spend in the order of five to seven times what a resident or expat returning home would spend. There is a considerable difference in the returns and revenue models. Of course, we are open to everybody.”

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