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'Sigh of relief' from Island tourism sector with border reopening in sight

Vancouver Island’s tourism sector is celebrating ­Monday’s federal announcement that vaccinated ­Americans are welcome in Canada starting Aug. 9 and that other international travellers can enter as of Sept. 7.
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Greater Victoria's tourism-dependent companies lost the 2020 season and much of this year’s as well due to COVID-19. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Vancouver Island’s tourism sector is celebrating ­Monday’s federal announcement that vaccinated ­Americans are welcome in Canada starting Aug. 9 and that other international travellers can enter as of Sept. 7.

Nathan Bird, Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife Tours’ general manager, is “absolutely thrilled.”

U.S. visitors have been missed. Pre-pandemic they made up one-quarter of Eagle Wing’s customer base and represent the biggest share of all foreign business.

Tourism-dependent companies lost the 2020 season and much of this year’s as well due to COVID-19.

“We are slogging through,” Bird said. “We have been very thankful for the support that we’ve received locally and from Canadians, but it’s not enough to get us through year after year. We desperately need international tourists to be here.”

Eagle Wing currently has 27 full-time employees; it had 49 in 2019, although some were part-time.

Canada’s decision to open the border comes after the federal transport minister arrived in Victoria last week to say that cruise ships — which normally bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city annually — will be allowed to dock again as of November. They haven’t been to the city since 2019.

Paul Nursey, Destination Greater Victoria chief executive, said the industry is “breathing a collective sigh of relief.”

Although there are some unanswered questions, “We are excited to have another customer segment back. We are delighted for many reasons — most of all because we have such deep cultural connections to Washington state, California and others.”

American visitors are by far the most important to the region’s tourism industry, he said. They represent about 26 per cent of visitors but their spending value is far higher.

U.S. visitors “often make the difference between breaking even and profitability for many of our members.”

Nursey cautioned that the industry has a long way to go still. “I don’t want to convey that we’re anywhere near recovery.”

Anthony Everett, Tourism Vancouver Island chief executive, said the announcement is a little late for many businesses when it comes to this year’s season, such as those in the fishing sector and those offering extended kayak tours. But they can start making business plans and taking bookings for 2022.

The key is to make the new regime as simple as possible now and in the long term, he said. Visitors make decisions based on how easily they can move from place to place, he said.

Nancy Cameron, Tourism Tofino executive director, echoes others saying the announcement is “excellent news.”

“A significant component of our visitor volume, ­particularly in the summer months is from international markets including the United States.”

Rod Hunchak, Victoria International Airport ­director of business development and community relations, said that although the airport was not included in the expanded list of airports allowed to take international arrivals, “We anticipate being added in the near future.”

As of Aug. 9, airports in Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton will be added to the list of Canadian cities where international flights are ­permitted to land.

Air travellers will no longer be required to spend the first three nights of their ­quarantine at a government-approved hotel.

cjwilson@timescolonist

— With Canadian Press