Jun 2, 2020
HALIFAX — Make no mistake: Covid-19 has been, and will be, terrible for tourism-related businesses in the HRM. But as the 2020 tourist season begins to take shape, there are a few small reasons for optimism.
Things are already dire for Halifax businesses that rely on tourism to turn a profit. Discover Halifax CEO Ross Jefferson recently laid out the facts for Halifax Regional Council.
At the end of last month, he said, 14 hotels employing about 27,000 people in the city were still closed. Close to 2,300 restaurants with about 20,500 employees were shuttered, and 102 major conferences or events had been cancelled.
As businesses begin to reopen June 5 some of those numbers will go down, but with international flights mostly grounded, social distancing rules making conferences and large events impossible, and the city’s 2020 cruise season cancelled, tourism revenues in Halifax will still take a massive hit this year.
Michele Saran is the CEO of Tourism Nova Scotia. Speaking to members of the tourism industry last week she said the stark reality is that between 40 and 80 percent of tourism-related revenue in Nova Scotia will disappear in 2020.
But while Halifax will see very few international visitors (or even visitors from farther-flung regions of Canada) this summer, there are still a few glimmers of hope for the city’s 2020 tourism season.
Maritime ‘Bubble’ Will Be Key
Those glimmers begin with the idea of a Maritime “bubble” of open borders between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI.
Government and industry leaders have been talking openly about a Maritime bubble. While there’s been no official word on when that could happen, most industry leaders believe it will be soon.
“My understanding is this is something we can look forward to possibly in July. There’s certainly an appetite for making this happen,” Saran says.
When it does happen, Halifax will be particularly well-positioned to take advantage of bubble-bound tourists. That’s because the bulk of the city’s visitors, even when there are no travel restrictions in place, already come from bubble provinces.
Jefferson says 67 percent of Halifax’s visitors every year are people driving in from other parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI.
Getting those visitors back, he points out, would mean a big boost for the city’s businesses.
“I think opening up the Maritime bubble idea is really our best opportunity this summer,” he says.
Saran says that people who travel within the Maritimes are “by far” more likely to visit Halifax than any other region. One-third of all the trips Nova Scotians took in the Maritimes in 2018, for example, were to “the big city.”
But Jefferson sees even more opportunity for Halifax this year. Nova Scotians usually spend about $1.4-billion every year on travel outside of the province.
“But if they’re not able to travel to other parts of the country or other parts of the world, we think more of that market and that spend [will stay in Nova Scotia],” he says.
“We think there’s a great opportunity for people to stay longer and spend more in our own province.”
‘We need to capture their imaginations’
Tourism Nova Scotia thinks so as well, which is why it’s targeting most of its marketing efforts this year at Maritimers.
There are differences between international travelers and people that come from closer to home, and Saran says Tourism Nova Scotia is researching exactly how to appeal to them.
Visitors from the Maritimes tend to stay for a shorter time and spend less money while they’re here. There’s also a chance people will be wary of coming to “the big city” where they feel more vulnerable to infections.
To entice them, Tourism Nova Scotia is tugging at people’s provincial pride with a series of “warm and fuzzy” videos showcasing beautiful landscapes and challenging them to “rediscover what’s in their backyard.”
“What we need to do is give this visitor a specific reason to come. We need to capture their imaginations,” Saran says.
Saran admits these efforts won’t bring back all the lost tourism revenue, but she says they should still make a difference.
“This is a stop-gap getting us through an emergency period,” she said. “We need to get back into export markets if we’re going to grow tourism revenues in the future.”
“Our goal right now is to save as much of the 2020 tourism season as we can. We know our operators are suffering.”
‘Getting people to open their wallets’
Those suffering operators have so far clung to life with the help of government supports, but everyone realizes those supports won’t be enough to save the industry.
Patrick Sullivan, the CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, knows this well.
Following Saran last week he said he’s been mostly happy with how federal and provincial governments that have stepped in with relief programs but that the only way to ensure businesses survive is to get people — tourists especially — spending money.
“We need something tactical that really gets people moving and spending money. Programs aren’t going to be enough no matter what the programs are,” he says.
“We really need to get Nova Scotians moving around. I think the government needs to encourage people to get out there and spend money.”
He points out that government programs will never be able to replace all the money consumers spend on local businesses. The most important thing this summer, he adds, will be getting people to “open up their wallets” again.
“It will be the only thing that gets us through,” he says.