2020 Was Going To Be An Excellent Year: Tourism and COVID-19

By John Francis

“It appeared that 2020 was going to be an excellent year. Bookings and deposits in January and February were ahead of last year,” said Wilfred Laman of Lion’s Head Beach Motel. Since then, “the phones have stopped ringing and to date we have lost over 200 reservations from March through August. The bookings that are coming in are from companies that have building permits and those on the Essential Service List.” But looking forward, he is optimistic: “We believe that Northern Bruce Peninsula will be the perfect vacation destination and travellers will choose NBP instead of going on airplanes and cruises to exotic destinations.’

Marydale Ashcroft runs two stores in Lion’s Head: The Dandy Lion gift shop and Aunt Donkey’s Toys and Games. She serves a different clientele — mainly locals and cottagers — and hopes to be “partially open” for curbside pickup and online shopping. “If we open up too much,” she told me, “we could have a second wave of COVID next winter” plus more stress to mental health. But “how long can the government afford to pay people not to work? How long can businesses afford to stay closed?” She does not have clear answers to those questions but is determined that “my businesses will survive”. She hopes that those who are unable to get to their summer paradise will drive online sales of Lion’s Head and Bruce Peninsula branded goods.

At Tobermory, the story is a little different, perhaps a bit more desperate. Where Lion’s Head’s economy serves mainly locals and cottagers, Tobermory’s economy is much more dependent on tourists — transients, day-trippers, cottage renters.

Ferry service is scheduled to begin June 1 so the motels will probably open May 31 to accommodate. But the ferry is limited to “essential travel” which will not likely be enough to fill the motels.

The tour boats have a different set of concerns. Julie Robins of Bruce Anchor Cruises explains: “When the boats can begin operating will be heavily dependent upon when the government lifts restrictions on group gatherings. Transport Canada has restricted all non-essential passenger vessels of over 12 passengers from operating until June 30, 2020. Assuming that this date does not get extended, it will still largely depend on how soon the federal government will feel comfortable opening Parks Canada’s attractions. Boat tours in Tobermory are almost entirely dependent upon Parks Canada’s attractions in order to be viable.”

Would Bruce Anchor be ready to roll out in mid-season if regulations are relaxed? “Absolutely! It is important to keep business alive. The sooner that businesses are able to safely begin operating, the sooner that they will be able to recover, regardless of how late in the season this may be.”

The retail sector in Tobermory is also heavily impacted. Some have decided not to open at all for 2020; others are adopting a wait-and-see strategy. A shift towards online sales of branded goods is expected.

At this writing, Tobermory’s restaurant sector consists of take-out at the Princess Hotel & Restaurant and the Crowsnest Pub.

How will the pandemic response affect the restaurant and retail sector? “Drastically,” says Helen McFarlane, manager of the Sweet Shop/Coffee Shop in downtown Tobermory. “Cleaning, social distancing, new messaging, changes to operational flow to reduce contact between customers and staff.” Her two businesses serve mainly tourists and she does not expect to be “fully open” at all in 2020. “I expect social distancing rules to remain for the season.”

Tobermory Chamber of Commerce has a long tradition of spring “Wine and Cheese” meetings. This year, it was held online, on May 6. It was a very interesting and well-attended event, Chamber President Neda Sarbakhsh told me, including the Mayor, two Councillors, MNBP’s new CAO and a rep from Parks Canada. All businesses have their own worries but at the same time each individual decision is important for the safety of ourselves and the whole community. There is a wide range between “Do we open and risk getting sick or do we stay closed the whole year?” Many businesses are hoping to “get something” in July and August. There was general agreement that the tourism economy should open in stages, cautiously. “Don’t take a risk.”

But Sarbakhsh points out that things will be different. “How comfortable are people going to be about travelling?” With very high unemployment, how many people are going to be able to afford to travel? On balance, she feels Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula will have some strong advantages: it’s easy and inexpensive to get here by car and you don’t have to leave the country.

She expects domestic travel to open up before international travel and she doesn’t expect a “full return” to pre-pandemic life until 2023.