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Tourist levels encouraging after poor start

It is no longer just a cheesy, lip-synched phrase from the late 1980s. Now even the Victoria tourism sector will "blame it on the rain" as bad weather is being cited for a slow start to the tourist season.

It is no longer just a cheesy, lip-synched phrase from the late 1980s. Now even the Victoria tourism sector will "blame it on the rain" as bad weather is being cited for a slow start to the tourist season.

According to statistics from Chemistry Consulting, average hotel occupancy, revenue per available room and ferry traffic are all down over the first six months of the year as the city struggled under grey skies and cool temperatures.

Frank Bourree, principal of Chemistry Consulting, said with Victoria relying heavily on short-haul markets for the bulk of its visitors, weather will always play a large role. "We are really drawing a lot more of our tourism regionally and they can get here quickly and stay for shorter periods," Bourree said. He noted they also book at the last-minute and may wait for decent weather before making travel plans.

The result is average hotel occupancy over the first half of this year was down slightly to 59.68 per cent compared with the same period last year, while revenue per available room dropped $3 to $66.53.

B.C. Ferries traffic also suffered with vehicle numbers down 2.4 per cent to 797,113 and passenger numbers down 1.91 per cent to 2.4 million over the first six months. Victoria International Airport shows less than one per cent growth over the first half of the year.

But Bourree pointed out as much as weather can hurt the numbers, it can also bring them back. "As long as we have good weather, we will see some growth. We have a bit to make up from what we lost," he said.

Early indicators are July numbers, likely fuelled by more sun and heat, were stronger and both hoteliers and some attractions are expecting a strong August and even a good September.

"After the soft start, we are starting to see week-over-week visitation trending about the same as the 2011 levels," said But-chart Gardens general manager Dave Cowen. "But again, we're seeing the tourism season being compressed into July and August because of iffy weather."

The Gardens have been working to boost their summer program, including evening concerts and special events as well as their traditional Saturday night fireworks, to make up shortfalls and draw in the local audience.

"The summer program is very important and we've really seen some different time-of-day arrival patterns starting to develop," he said, adding they have also worked closely with the cruise ships to accommodate more visitors, which has started to pay off.

The Royal B.C. Museum, fuelled by its Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibit, is ahead of its own projections. According to marketing and sales manager Erika Stenson, the RBCM is on track to beat its own projections for revenue growth by three per cent this year. "That's a fairly significant increase over last year, it's about 30 per cent," she said.

In June alone, the museum saw its revenue increase 86 per cent over June 2011, which was 25 per cent more than its own projections. In terms of visitors, there was a 24 per cent increase that month compared to June 2011.

"July looks to be about five per cent over our [revenue] projections," said Stenson, who noted they were probably helped by the bad weather as well as their commitment to the local market. "We do focus on locals a lot. Vancouver Island has been strong for us."

The city has also been a good draw for culinary tourists, according to Shawn Soole, head bartender at Clive's Classic Lounge at the Chateau Victoria Hotel.

"We're seeing a lot more visitors from Seattle and San Francisco, and they do their research," he said.

"They hear from bartenders in their cities who tell them to come here. It's for a holiday primarily, but secondary is they are coming for cocktails, food, wine and beer. I've had a lot of 'beer nerds' stay at the hotel because they want to come [to Clive's] and we send them around to try others around the city.

"Culinary is a very big thing here, and more so this year than I have ever noticed before."

There is also some indication the U.S. market is improving. Through the first five months of this year, U.S. traffic to B.C. is up just under one per cent to 1.4 million people and visitation from the AsiaPacific region has increased 6.5 per cent to 270,000.

"We're seeing an increase to B.C., but right now not as many of them are reaching the Island," said Bourree.

"But it's very positive, we've seen five months growth from the U.S. after 20 years of decline."

The end result, however, is likely to mean a flat year overall for the Victoria tourism sector. "It's heading toward what we had budgeted for," said Tourism Victoria CEO Rob Gialloreto. "I understand the second half of July was good and from all indicators August and September look solid. I expect to finish close to last year in terms of occupancy and revenue per available room."

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