FILE – A view of Hudson Bay Mountain Resort and surroundings near Smithers, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. The trail makes for a bracing hike to Crater Lake (unseen). THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

FILE – A view of Hudson Bay Mountain Resort and surroundings near Smithers, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. The trail makes for a bracing hike to Crater Lake (unseen). THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

Tourism, hospitality sector digs in for 2nd COVID summer amid wait for border re-opening

Government decisions on travel will be the deciding factor for much of B.C.’s tourism and hospitality industry

When B.C. unveiled its restart plan for a post-pandemic summer, or as close as the province is likely to get this year, many breathed a sigh of relief.

But among tourism and hospitality operators, many of who have been shut down for months – if not the entire pandemic – the reaction was mixed.

John Nicholson is the vice-president of hotels and restaurants at the Listel Hospitality Group, which runs two eponymous hotels and restaurants in Whistler and Vancouver, a conference and event space, as well as the Cheakamus Centre, an overnight environmental education facility near Squamish.

Nicholson said that while B.C.’s restart plan is just that – a start – it’s not going to be enough for his hotels and restaurants. The plan restricts travel outside one’s own health region, broken into three zones, until at least June and advises against Canada-wide travel until July 1. The federal government has not yet announced dates for international travel to return, restricted in March 2020.

The province’s climb out of COVID is largely based on first-dose vaccination rates and herd immunity. For example, provincial travel will only restart June 15 if 65 per cent of the province is vaccinated, while Canada-wide travel by July 1 depends on a 70 per cent vaccination rate.

The final opening step – when COVID restrictions lift entirely – won’t be until Sept. 7 – something that worries Nicholson.

“We’re not going to recover until everything opens up,” he told Black Press Media. “We’re super worried about the cruise ships bypassing British Columbia now.”

READ MORE: Seattle-Alaska cruise ships gear up to bypass B.C. ports this summer

Places like Washington State, where 49 per cent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 58 per cent have one dose, could absorb much of the Pacific Northwest tourism this year due to a recent law which dropped the requirement for a stop at B.C. ports.

Tourism Minister Melanie Mark has repeatedly said B.C. has pressed Transport Canada to ease the ban, but even “technical stops” with no passengers allowed are a no-go. The U.S. legislation does have a clause that Premier John Horgan is celebrating: cruise ships can only bypass B.C. until the border measures lift or March 2022, whichever is sooner.

What are other countries doing?

Nicholson likes the U.K.’s reopening plan, which lays out a list of red, amber and green countries and outlines quarantine procedures for visitors. While many international visitors will still have to quarantine – including those from Canada – tourists from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Portugal only have to isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 on arrival.

Meanwhile, Canada is much further behind on allowing non-essential travellers in. On Monday, Prime Minister Trudeau said that any tourists would need to be fully vaccinated before arriving.

READ MORE: Trudeau says government looking at plan for return of international tourists

But while he awaits news on the travel front, Nicholson said another major financial factor for him this year is tax season.

“We got a property tax bill for $929,000, a 25 per cent increase over last year,” Nicholson said. He attributes the increase to the provincial school tax – which the group was given a discount on last year – but this year’s bill is higher than it was pre-pandemic.

Despite having been in B.C. since 1988, the group – which is currently employing less than 20 per cent of its usual 365 staff – doesn’t qualify for the provincial tourism fund of $50 million because it’s half foreign-owned.

“We’re not getting anything from the provincial government. It’s so disrespectful to us.”

Nicholson’s main concern is that this summer will turn out like the last one, when – despite eased restrictions – the Listel Group’s hotels barely hit 25 per cent occupancy in the middle of summer – a time of the year when capacity averages 95 per cent.

Provincial travel restrictions hurting the Okanagan, Kootenays

He’s not the only one concerned about the summer season. Chief Clarence Louie, CEO of Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation, expressed disappointment to see that travel restrictions within B.C. will remain in place for a few more weeks.

“We depend on summer traffic from the Lower Mainland,” Louie said.

The development corporation leases land to wineries, golf courses, hotels and many other businesses on its territory in B.C.’s southern interior, but also runs a variety of businesses under the Nk’Mip name, including a winery, a golf course and a cultural centre.

Despite setbacks through 2020, Louie lauded the B.C. government for promoting travel within the province.

“A lot of the city people who normally went across the U.S. border into the states or somewhere else … came to the Okanagan and south Okanagan, which is good. Some of them came to the Okanagan for the first time.”

While diverting U.S. traffic to the Okanagan helped the Osoyoos Indian Band, Louie said it remains a source of frustration that his people – split by the Canada-U.S. border – cannot freely travel to see family or attend traditional ceremonies in their ancestral lands to the south.

While U.S. border guards let them cross, even those with both COVID-19 shots must quarantine for 14 days when they return. Louie said the border issue touches on a larger problem – a lack of vaccines. Around 65 per cent of B.C. residents ages 12 and up have their first dose, but less than five per cent are fully immunized.

Could vaccine passports help push travel quicker?

When B.C.’s restart plan was rolled out, Henry said she did not support the use of vaccine passports within the province.

But Louie wishes that B.C. had an incentive program for vaccination and that there was more pressure on people to get the jab. And Nicholson agrees.

“I don’t know why we’re so hesitant about the vaccination passport or using that word,” he said. “I think with the vaccination, we’re catering or pandering to the non-vaccinated versus just going, ‘hey, we’ve got to open things up. The economy needs to get going.’”

Despite the perceived flaws in B.C.’s reopening plan, CEO of the BC Hotel Association Ingrid Jarrett said she breathed a “big sigh of relief” upon hearing the strategy.

“We’re rolling up our sleeves and looking at rehiring, training, (and) encouraging B.C. residents – when the restrictions are lifted for the next phase – to get out and travel,” said Ingrid Jarrett.

A big part of this summer’s challenge will be retraining not only employees, but teaching B.C. residents about the hidden gems located here at home. Many are excited about travel and tourists who might normally travel to Vancouver for sports games and concerts will need to be encouraged to come for the restaurants and the sea wall. In the north this could include the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, which encompasses a 116-kilometre chain of lakes in B.C. northern interior.

“For the first time in probably 20 years, there are all kinds of guided tours available this summer. And it’s because people from around the world normally book those, and all those reservations have been canceled.”

READ MORE: ‘Save summer’: Tourism business have modest expectations ahead of crucial season


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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