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Atlantic domestic tourism stares down COVID

The Atlantic Bubble, once a rare example of COVID-19 resilience in northern America, has burst, but not before it proved that domestic tourism and business confidence could thrive if people felt safe from the pandemic.

On the far eastern tip of Canada, bordering the Atlantic, an experiment in keeping COVID at bay has come to an end.

The Atlantic Bubble was an agreement between the four Atlantic Canadian provinces New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, which together created a zone allowing free internal travel but restricted access to outsiders without having first completed screening and a mandatory quarantine.

While island countries such as Australia and New Zealand have introduced similar restrictions, Atlantic Canada was a rare case in North America of a successful bubble, and from early July to late November created a haven in which the number of COVID-19 deaths is about half of one per cent of Canada’s total.

But with cases of coronavirus now rising— albeit in still low numbers — the ability to move freely between the provinces has ceased.

Newfoundland and Labrador is not expected to reopen quarantine-free travel for Atlantic Canadians until January at least, and Prince Edward Island, or PEI, will stay out until at December 21 at the earliest.

“In the absence of the Atlantic Bubble, we wouldn’t even have opened. But business confidence was also half of the equation — it’s not just about opening, but trying to change the psyche.”
– Grant Galbraith

It is a blow for the soft revival of tourism seen in recent months, with the ability to move across the four borders enabling accommodation providers to reopen their doors to overnight visitors.

Grant Galbraith, Managing Partner at Baker Tilly Nova Scotia, says the economies of the Atlantic provinces are largely dependent on tourism, and, without a bubble, accommodation demand dries up.

It’s a situation he understands well, as he and his wife also own and operate a 15-room motel on PEI, and took advantage of the bubble to open for the late summer season.

“You have to have people moving across provinces to require overnight trips and to therefore operate accommodation,” Mr Galbraith says.

“If you aren’t getting people from New Brunswick or from Newfoundland and PEI coming into Halifax, then the need for accommodation is almost nonexistent. We are just too small province by province.

“In the absence of the Atlantic Bubble, we wouldn’t even have opened.

“But business confidence was also half of the equation — it’s not just about opening, but trying to change the psyche.

“The Bubble was about saying it is okay to travel from province to province.

covid domestic tourism

“We’ve got this covered. You don’t have to worry about nonessential travels from jurisdictions with higher infections rates across Canada and the US coming in to the bubble. It’s just us Atlantic Canadians here.”

COVID Bubbles have at times been controversial, with tension between those who want more free movement — accompanied by foot traffic and demand for businesses — and those who want safety to take precedence.

The Atlantic Bubble seemed to balance both positions, allowing residents to live relatively normal lives, while observing social distancing and basic precautions.

Its bursting has not only impacted tourism, with other associated sectors feeling the pinch. Restrictions are in place for restaurants, many non-essential businesses and on working from offices if not required.

Newfoundland and Labrador entered December at level 2, which allowed gyms and most recreational facilities to open, but limited capacity at bars and restaurants. PEI recently began a two-week circuit breaker, while New Brunswick has reduced some restrictions as cases decline.

Some of the toughest restrictions are in Halifax County, home to 40 per cent of Nova Scotia’s population, with shops limited to 25 per cent capacity and in-restaurant dining banned.

“So in our zone all restaurants and gyms are closed, but, like many around the world, the government is trying to encourage the community to support them through take away options,” Mr Galbraith says.

“We are certainly encouraging our staff to support our local businesses. They’ve supported us and now it’s our turn to support them.”

“But how will we get from earning 10 to 20% of our normal revenue in 2020 to earning 125% of our revenue in 2022? What the landing spot is in the middle for 2021, that’s anybody’s guess.”
– Grant Galbraith

While 2020 will remain challenging for Atlantic Canada, Mr Galbraith believes business confidence will improve and revenue will increase — but the big question remains by how much.

“The big conversations for businesses during COVID-19 have been how you staff your organisations. No matter what you do it has been a cost-cutting exercise,” he says.

“Businesses needed to evaluate what revenue source they were going to have in this environment, and what expense structure they needed to put in place in order to keep that.

“Most of us, myself included, knew that there were going to be losses this season, but the goal was to minimise those losses. If anything, the most important factor was to be open and operating. You can’t go into a season without opening and not expect repercussions.

“I think I would say it’s obvious 2021 is going to be better than 2020 — it can’t be worse.

“And everything is pointing towards that fact now vaccinations are happening. I would say as well that I think 2022 is going to go gangbusters, it should be fabulous.

“But how will we get from earning 10 to 20% of our normal revenue in 2020 to earning 125% of our revenue in 2022? What the landing spot is in the middle for 2021, that’s anybody’s guess.”

If there’s one sector that is set to thrive it is real estate — with the prospect of leaving high-COVID, high-stress areas for a location with low exposure to the virus, open spaces and urban amenities.

“We have high speed internet like everybody else, grocery stores and liquor stores, we have all those things, too,” Mr Galbraith says.

“But we also have a lot of beautiful beaches, and we’re not overcrowded. People have learned how to work remotely and so a lot of people from Ontario in particular, but the US as well, are looking to move back to the Maritimes and improve their way of life.

“Our real estate prices have taken a significant jump and I expect that tourism is going to follow a similar route – wide open spaces are going to be heavily sought after.”

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Grant Galbraith

Baker Tilly Nova Scotia

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