Travel restrictions down, visitor traffic up on the Island

It won’t break any records, but with ice cream flying out the door, people jockeying for space on B.C. Ferries vessels and hotels having a few heads in their beds, the first weekend after the province lifted travel restrictions within B.C. showed signs of promise.

Helped along with a solid dose of heat and sun, roads around the south Island were noticeably busier over the weekend, lakes were splashier, beaches more crowded and ice cream sales brisk.

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“Yes, sunshine and travel made for a very busy weekend,” said Marie Zirk, owner of Perverted Ice Cream on Humboldt Street. “Not the same as it might have been pre-COVID, but then we were never open in June pre-COVID. It really does feel like it is ramping up.”

Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria, whose job it is to sell the city to the world, characterized the weekend as a start.

“I would say that it was a noted improvement but still quite a way to go before we get close to normalized levels of business,” he said. “It is important to remember in a large city such as Victoria, all channels must be firing for the city to truly be busy. That is simply not possible without the U.S. market, meetings and conferences, festivals and sports tourism-related events with spectators allowed.

“However, business is building steadily and I believe we are on a slow road to recovery.”

Nursey noted a marketing campaign offering $75 Visa gift cards for those booking two-night stays has been well subscribed.

“That campaign is a gift from our hoteliers who resourced it and is designed to get the system gearing up again with an inducement for customers,” said Nursey.

Bill Lewis, general manager of the Magnolia Hotel said business is building, and getting busier on weekends.

“Overall [we’re] still considerably off where we would be historically but business is growing which is nice to see,” he said.

Reid James, general manager at the Hotel Grand Pacific said “so far so good.”

“We saw a modest but steady increase in reservation activity for June and the summer,” he said. “The restaurant and patio had a much improved weekend. The warm temperatures helped. We are booking some small meetings and events as well.”

The improved outlook for hotels and the sight of more people on the streets goes hand-in-hand with increased use of transportation options beyond the family car.

Geoff Dickson, chief executive of Victoria International Airport, saw numbers jump a little over the weekend.

“We had been tracking at 10 per cent of 2019 numbers for the first part of June. This past weekend we saw numbers climb to as high as 21 per cent of 2019 numbers,” he said. “Typically we would see approximately 6,000 passengers a day travelling through the airport in a pre-pandemic June. Sunday’s passenger count was close to 1,300.”

B.C. Ferries, which at times during the pandemic said its ridership was down 80 per cent, had a decent weekend. “While we are seeing an increase in traffic since the essential-travel-only restrictions have been lifted, traffic was down yesterday about 30 per cent in passengers and about 15 per cent in vehicles compared to 2019,” spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said Monday. “We are optimistic for the summer though.”

John Wilson, president of bus company Wilson’s Transportation, said they launched their sightseeing and B.C. Ferries Connector programs shortly after travel restrictions were relaxed last week.

It started to pay off slightly over the weekend.

Wilson said the Grayline Hop On Hop Off sightseeing program was approximately 15 per cent of its normal volume, while the B.C. Ferries Connector was about 10 per cent of normal and the Tofino Bus was running about 19 per cent of normal.

“So the numbers are not great, but it is a step in the right direction,” he said. “We will not expect anything over 40 per cent in numbers compared to 2019 until the border opens again.”

B.C. Transit said it’s too early to say if the eased travel restrictions have translated to increased use of its services to and from B.C. Ferries and other summer destinations, but the Crown corporation has seen ridership increase between one and two per cent every week. “We are expecting that a return to in-class learning for post-secondary institutions this fall will result in a significant ridership return,” it said in a statement.

As most operators noted, the big difference will come when the international border with the U.S. is reopened to leisure travel.

Ryan Malane, vice-president of Black Ball, which operates the Coho ferry between Victoria and Port Angeles, said every time there’s any discussion of border openings or what is happening with their vessel their social media feeds light up.

“There is certainly pent-up demand to travel,” he said. “Each time we post about taking the ship out for drills or whatever, our Facebook page sees 50,000 to 60,000 views. That’s a lot of organic traffic. That’s a lot of community love — including from Victoria.”

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