B.C. tourism operators being crushed by COVID-19 are hopeful but confused about how the critical summer season will unfold after the province unveiled its plan to reopen the economy on Wednesday.
Premier John Horgan announced B.C.’s phased action plan to lift some of its COVID-19 restrictions around the economy, schools and health services starting mid-May.
Horgan made clear that residents and visitors should continue to stay home and not travel from their communities during the upcoming May long weekend unless it was essential.
“The best course of action is to stay closer to home until we get further into the summer,” Horgan said.
Starting in June — if virus transmission rates stay low — campgrounds can open and tourism operators can offer services to visitors if they can stick to physical-distancing and safety protocols.
But Horgan also cautioned those thinking about visiting smaller, isolated resort communities.
“But again, you also have to acknowledge and recognize the permanent residents in those communities may not have access to acute care facilities and may be concerned about the spread of the virus,” he said.
Following the announcement, tourism operators said they are getting mixed messages, and are worried and unsure about how to proceed.
Lynden McMartin, Discovery Islands Chamber of Commerce (DICC) president and general manager of Taku Resort on Quadra Island, said the sector needs more clarification from government.
“It’s the announcement everybody has been waiting for,” said McMartin. “But it’s a little cryptic.”
On the one hand, the tourist sector has been told it might be able to operate in June, but there are no timelines about lifting recommendations from BC Ferries or health authorities to avoid non-essential travel, McMartin said.
“Those businesses aren’t going to be just flinging open the doors and say, come all and come everyone. They are going to do it cautiously and follow guidelines,” North Island MLA Claire Trevena on B.C. tourism businesses during COVID-19 reopening.
“It’s a contradictory statement. We need further definition around essential travel and what it’s going to look like,” he said.
“They are telling me to open in June, but telling people not to come here. It’s difficult for me to know exactly what to do.”
The DICC was one of the groups that supported the Quadra community’s request that people avoid visiting the island during the COVID-19 crisis.
There hasn’t been time to consult with DICC members or make any decisions around maintaining or retracting the advisory since the government introduced its reopening plan, McMartin said.
“Personally, I’d like to see a cautious return with visitors … where we maintain distancing, and steps like that,” he said.
“We do have an economy that has to get along somehow.”
The Discovery Islands off the east coast of Vancouver Island — like many of B.C.’s coastal destinations — are eco-tourism havens for boaters, kayakers, whale watchers, fishing enthusiasts, and campers during the summer months.
The region’s two most populous islands, Quadra and Cortes, with approximately 3,000 and 1,000 permanent residents, can see population numbers double or triple during the high season, and tourism is vital for their economies.
Both communities have issued public statements asking visitors not to come to the islands during the COVID-19 crisis.
Carmen Amberson, general manager of Gowlland Harbour Resort on Quadra Island, says the government’s lack of clear direction around travel guidelines leaves her in a difficult position.
She doesn’t know whether to take bookings or how to determine who can or can't visit without alienating her home community.
The right course of action is open to different interpretations by everybody, whether it’s resort operators, residents or visitors, she said.
“I’m walking a very thin line between doing what’s best for the health of clients and the community, and still maintaining my business, and doing what’s right for everybody,” Amberson said.
The lack of clarity about guests also makes it difficult to gauge what staffing levels Amberson might need moving forward.
She closed the resort down in the spring, but typically hires 45 people at the height of the season.
“I can’t even begin to think about what staff to bring on right now, which breaks my heart,” she said.
Anthony Everett, Tourism Vancouver Island president and CEO, said tourism operators across Vancouver Island and B.C. are trying to sort out similar dilemmas.
Hotels and resorts were never actually ordered to close by the province and health authorities, but many did shut down in the spring due to uncertainty fed by the pandemic, Everett said.
Public health is still paramount, he said, but the tourism sector is facing ambiguity about how to proceed.
“There are questions that are still not clear after the announcement (Wednesday), and I hope in the days ahead, we’ll get some clarity,” he said.
Industry groups such as Tourism Vancouver Island will help operators plan and make the changes to meet COVID-19’s distancing and public health protocols.
Each operator is also expected to devise an individual plan to protect the health of clients and staff and post it publicly, according to the province.
But even if tourist operators devise plans, they don't guarantee them business, Everett said.
“The question is: Who is coming? I don’t have the answer to that,” he said.
Typically, American visitors are the main revenue source for B.C.'s tourism sector, but borders are unlikely to open soon, Everett noted.
“My own view is that this will be a very slow and gradual return, and it will be focused on a hyper-local market.”
B.C.'s tourism sector generates $20.5 billion annually, and it contributed more to the province’s GDP than any other primary resource industry, according to 2018 data.
There are 19,329 tourism-related businesses and 161,500 people employed in the sector provincewide.
North Island MLA Claire Trevena said she understands the frustrations of the region’s tourism operators and how important its revenue and jobs are to local economies.
However, the reopening of the tourism sector has to be measured and adhere to public health guidelines, she said, adding outstanding questions are being examined.
“We don’t have all the answers right now. We’ve got to work together to find a safe way of operating.”
Visitors to the islands later this summer will still be expected to maintain coronavirus-distancing protocols and take precautions for residents’ sake, Trevena said.
However, she’s also confident the region’s tourist operators will take steps to open responsibly and keep guests, staff and surrounding communities safe, she said.
“Those businesses aren’t going to be just flinging open the doors and say, come all and come everyone. They are going to do it cautiously and follow guidelines,” Trevena said.
“As Dr. (Bonnie) Henry says: Be kind … respect the fact that your neighbours aren’t going to be risking the health of the community. At least, I hope that’s how our community would approach it.”
Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer