Cape Breton Post
Cape Breton tourism operators indicative of an industry in constant flux
Tourism operators counting on borders reopening have been on a roller coaster.
The Atlantic bubble—allowing free travel within the region—opened last year then closed as a third wave of COVID-19 hit. Now the borders are opening again.
With case numbers down, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia will all be welcoming non-essential travel by Wednesday July 30.
Still, Ottawa is holding off letting foreign visitors in.
The upshot is that most Atlantic Canadians will be able to travel freely within the region — unless there’s another spike in cases—but don’t expect cruise ships, plane loads of tourists or bus tours from Boston any time soon.
All of this leaves operators across Atlantic Canada preparing for tourist season without knowing how many tourists will come.
Cape Breton is one of the region’s most popular destinations. The scenery-rich island punches well above its weight in terms of natural beauty. Visitors head to Cape Breton to drive iconic roads such as the Cabot Trail where they are rewarded with breathtaking vistas of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bras d’or Lakes from both coastal and highland viewpoints.
As the chief executive officer of the Destination Cape Breton Association, it’s Terry Smith’s job to promote tourism on the island. He’s certainly not alone in that role, but he may just have one of the best overviews of how the beleaguered industry has fared since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
“In a season like we are likely to have, at least for the first part of it, opening the bubble would be a big help,” understated Smith, whose organization normally promotes Cape Breton to potential visitors from away, many of them far away.
“In a normal year we get about 78 per cent of our visitors from outside of Atlantic Canada with the Greater Toronto area being our biggest market followed by Halifax and Montréal.”
Smith believes it is important to keep Cape Breton in the minds of those out of province travelers as a must-see destination. But the bread and butter this year may still be residents of Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia.
“Right now, it’s extremely important that we keep an emphasis on our local residents and that we promote staycations,” said Smith.
“COVID’S silver lining is that so many Cape Breton residents went to places on the island where they hadn’t been since they were kids or places where they may never have been. They have rediscovered the beauty and everything else the island has to offer and that makes them our greatest ambassadors.
“We must encourage them to share their experiences on social media so that we can take what they are doing and amplify it a little bit and use them as our best salespeople for the island.”
Like many destinations in Atlantic Canada, Cape Breton Island offers a plethora of outdoor pursuits such as fishing, hiking, golfing and whale watching. According to Smith, operators of such activities have generally fared better than other sectors of the industry. Yet, even within the outdoor attractions, fortunes are disparate. For instance, locals-mostly golf courses like Lingan in Sydney and Seaview in North Sydney didn’t lack for business last summer. However, highend destination courses like Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Inverness rely heavily on off-island, and indeed out-ofcountry, clientele.
Cabot general manager Andrew Alkenbrack said the resort adapted quickly to the pandemic.
“Over the past year we have refocused our marketing efforts and offered packages and experiences designed to appeal to Atlantic Canadians,” he said. “We’ve also focused on maintenance improvements and are very proud to have maintained our staffing levels.”
On the other side of the island, the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay has suffered primarily due to the shutdown of the cruise industry.
“Last year, even with the Atlantic bubble, we were down 95 per cent so that was dreadful,” conceded museum executive director Mary Pat Mombourquette.
“But I am hopefully optimistic. This this year we have added the virtual mine tour which is so new that nobody local has seen it so it may give people a reason to come out and visit the museum again. So, we are hoping they will come out and fall in love with the museum and the mine guys all over again.”
While the desire for a return to normalcy is universal, all tourism operators appear to be adhering to public health measures like social distancing and decreased capacities.
The Bird Island Boat Tours in Big Bras d’or has been operated by the Van Schaick family since the 1970s. With its summer tours to the nearby islands off Cape Breton’s east coast and its on-site cottages, the business has been viable. However, Sheila Van Schaick said her family is very cognizant of the perils of opening the Atlantic bubble too soon.
“Of course, we want business, but we will not jeopardize our health just for the sake of economics,” said Van Schaik. “We’ve been doing good here, but we want to keep it that way. We have no intention to mess it up just for the sake of a few tourism dollars.”
In the meantime, tourism operators in Cape Breton and across Atlantic Canada are banking on a collective pentup desire to get out and about, even if they don’t end up straying too far.