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‘Anything is better’: Halifax tourism industry weary but hopeful

Tourism operators in Halifax are tempering their expectations for this upcoming summer season, but are readying themselves to ramp up once COVID-19 protocols allow it.

This week’s scheduled return of the Atlantic Bubble can only help.

“We as a company are hoping that it’s a little bit better than last year,” said Dennis Campbell, the CEO of Ambassatours Gray Line.

“Last year was not a very good year, so anything is better.”

Ambassatours, one of the largest tour operators in the region, operates a number of ships and Harbour Hopper amphibious vehicles. Campbell says last year’s Atlantic Bubble, which opened the door to regional travel, helped the company operate its fleet at about 20 per cent capacity. Its restaurant and gift shop business was operating at just 10 per cent.

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This year, the Atlantic Bubble is scheduled to open on April 19 — months earlier than last year’s creation date of July 3, 2020.

Campbell says he is hopeful business will match or be slightly better than last year.

“Certainly the vaccine rollout is everything for the future of the tourism and travel industry and I think just for the world to get back to some sort of normal life,” he said.

“In the meantime, we’re going to have to take comfort in living where we live. You know we live in one of the very best places on the planet and we live a lot more normal life than most people.”

Campbell says Atlantic Canada’s relative success in keeping COVID-19 at bay has generated positive international attention and “notoriety” around the globe. That positive attention, coupled with what appears to be a bounce-back of the cruise industry in 2022, has him feeling optimistic about the eventual opening up of Canada’s borders.

“We hope that ’22 would perhaps be somewhat of a recovery year. But actually the way it’s going now, the analysts and the cruise lines are telling us that 2022 and 2023 are now almost completely sold out of cruise ships everywhere in the world,” he said.

He points out that the cruise ship industry is often an indicator of tourism strength in general, which bodes well for the region.

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That optimism is what Ross Jefferson, the president and CEO of Discover Halifax, holds on to as well.

The non-profit marketing organization, which is a partnership between the municipal government and tourism industry, has numbers that show a 75 per cent decrease in tourism spending in Halifax.

“The tourism industry has been one of the industries that’s been hit first, the industry that’s probably been hit the hardest and is likely the last industry to also return,” Jefferson said.

He says while rural areas may have done slightly better, city centres such as downtown Halifax have struggled immensely. He estimates Halifax saw a $900 million drop in spending from visitors.

In preparation for this summer — and in anticipation of successful COVID-19 vaccine rollouts that lead to loosening of restrictions — Jefferson says they’ve already been planning behind the scenes to bring events to the city.

Click to play video: Discover Halifax talks tourism master plan

The first large-scale event will be the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Halifax and Truro in May.

Much of their planning, however, is contingent on several variables — including health protocols, demand and infrastructure. Jefferson says the pieces of the constantly-changing puzzle include whether businesses can re-hire quickly enough, whether airline and bus routes will be open, and whether there are activities planned for tourists.

“Starting an industry this size, here in Halifax alone it’s a $1.3 billion industry, you can’t re-start that overnight,” he explained.

That’s why the industry is mapping out several scenarios, in anticipation of Canada’s border possibly opening.

“We know we can’t fully predict the future, there are uncertainties that still can exist so we’d rather be ready to open and have to pause than to not be ready when it’s safe to do so,” he said.

In the meantime, Campbell with Ambassatours has his sights set on next year, and the promise it brings.

“I think if we can all make it in the industry to 2022, there are some very, very good times ahead,” he said.

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