Downtown sees surge of visitors as restrictions are relaxed

A marked increase in regional travel, coupled with a city anxious to breathe a heavy sigh of relief made for a busy extended long weekend in Victoria.

Thousands of visitors and a strong local contingent flooded Victoria’s downtown through the weekend, kicking off Thursday with muted Canada Day celebrations and protests and carrying on until Sunday evening.

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Some described parts of the first weekend since the province relaxed pandemic restrictions, as “a gong show” while others preferred the term “good energy.”

Regardless, the city sprang to life, which has the hospitality industry cautiously optimistic for the rest of the summer.

“We had one of our busiest weekends in the history of Pagliacci’s, it was phenomenally busy, it was great,” said owner Solomon Siegel, who credited pent-up demand for a lot of the downtown traffic.

Shellie Gudgeon, owner of Il Terrazzo on lower Johnson Street, said it felt a little like a local celebration. “We had a great weekend, it was really wonderful as we had all our locals out in full force, which we were delighted by,” she said.

Gudgeon said after 16 months of uncertainty, stops and starts and the odd lockdown, it “felt surreal” to see the enthusiasm.

“It has been a long 16 months and everyone is still not completely comfortable yet, but right now we are certainly celebrating a kind of back-to-normal downtown,” she said. “And it’s a back-to-normal that’s about our locals, which I am delighted about.”

Both restaurants, staples in the downtown food scene for decades, saw a share of visitors from up-Island and the Lower Mainland, but both said there were a lot of local faces.

Gudgeon said much of the anxiety that has been such a part of the pandemic seemed to have dissipated after July 1, when the province relaxed restrictions.

She said by recommending rather than requiring masks and allowing travel across the country, people got the signal that they are getting to the end of restrictions. “It’s not entirely gone, but you can sense the palpable relief from everyone.”

Peter Wood, owner of restaurant Bear and Joey, said the ruling on masks was a major signal of optimism and that has translated into increased sales. “On the whole it is rather positive and we are moving in the right direction. The consensus is people don’t see us going backwards now, while before it was stop-start. Now we are seeing a lot more people, a lot more people eating in larger groups and it’s much more optimistic.”

Shawn Soole, bar manager at Clive’s Classic Lounge in the Chateau Victoria Hotel, said there is a growing sense of normalcy.

Some patrons are still iffy about sitting shoulder to shoulder at the bar, and it took some time for people to get used to having tables closer than six feet apart, but the cocktail lounge felt like its old self on the weekend, he said. “Definitely the last two weekends ramped up to old-school Clive’s days.”

He described his ride home on Friday and Saturday night through downtown as “a gong show” with people “getting right back into partying.”

Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria, said things are clearly picking up.

Larger hotels told him they were seeing 75 per cent occupancy over the long weekend — normally at this time of year it would be 90 per cent — though they still fall to about 30 to 40 per cent during the week.

But until the border with the U.S. is open to leisure travel, Greater Victoria will not get to capacity, he said.

B.C. Ferries, however, did flirt with capacity. Spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said there were some overloads at peak times. “We’re operating on our summer schedule, so lots of extra sailings have been added right through Labour Day,” she said. “We had a busy weekend across the fleet.”

Marshall said on Sunday traffic was down 17 per cent in passengers and two per cent in vehicles compared to 2019. “Since the province moved to step three of the restart plan, we are definitely seeing many customers travel with us and we are thrilled to welcome them back,” she said.

The Royal B.C. Museum has seen a massive jump in visitors since July 1. Visitor services manager Alexandra Weaver said visits nearly quadrupled from the previous week.

On July 3, the museum welcomed about 1,200 people after seeing 938 on July 1 and 1,099 on July 2.

On the previous weekend it topped out at 320.

Weaver said with travel restrictions relaxed, they have seen a lot of Lower Mainland visitors, many coming to see the Orcas: Our Shared Future exhibit, which runs until Jan. 9.

“We’re still nowhere near our normal, but until the cruise ships are back and the international border reopens we won’t be,” she said. “But we are definitely better than last summer.”

Jeff Bray, chief executive of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said the feel downtown is very different from last summer. With more people downtown grabbing a drink or a bite to eat, there’s more people out walking, going into shops.

“The mood in the public seems to be lightening up,” he said, which means better experiences for frontline staff, who have had to enforce rules for more than a year. “As they start to relax, it lightens the mood and makes it great for everybody.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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