Tourism industry ready to get rolling as travel restrictions ease

Destination Greater Victoria’s marketing machine will kick into gear in the next few days to start drawing Vancouver Island residents to the capital after the province announced travel restrictions within health zones have been lifted as part of the first phase of its latest economic reopening plan.

The four-phase plan, which took effect Tuesday, is what the tourism industry, decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been demanding for weeks – enough clarity and guidance to let people start to make vacation plans.

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“For summer and leisure travel this lays out a pretty clear road map and we can work with it,” said Paul Nursey, chief ­executive of the destination marketing organization.

“It’s an exciting day, we have been very vocal about the need for a restart plan, so today is a day to be grateful.”

Recreational travel is allowed within the three health zones now that more than 60 per cent of B.C.’s adult population has had a first dose of vaccine and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are stable.

By June 15, if the province has 65 per cent of the adult population with a first dose and COVID cases and hospitalizations are declining, there will be no more provincial travel restrictions.

By July 1 the province hopes to lift all Canadian travel restrictions and allow visitors from across the country.

“We have recovery campaigns ready to go,” said Nursey. “First with regional campaigns and then spreading across Canada as we head into summer.”

The message in those ad campaigns will play heavily on themes of trust and community, he said, and will note Victoria is a very special place and needs to be cared for properly.

He said campaigns that target people off the Island will have to be sensitive to community concerns.

Bill Lewis, general manager of the Magnolia Hotel, said while they understand the dates may change depending on health data, it’s enough of a road map to start preparing to host guests again.

“I was very happy to see clear and defined timelines; they may not be set in stone but it’s what we’ve been asking for as an industry – let the businesses and the people booking stays start to make some plans around when they can reasonably expect to travel,” he said. “Having those dates allows them to plan holidays and that gets that anticipation and excitement going again.”

Even with a sense of what the summer will look like and when the Island can start accepting Canadian visitors, the industry is braced for a tough season.

Lewis said they will miss the volume that comes with an open international border. Hotels, which have reported occupancy below 10 per cent over the last two months – 12-15 per cent on a good week — have “virtually nothing” booked for the peak months of July and August.

“The circuit breaker definitely brought tourism, even the domestic tourism, to a pretty hard stop,” said Lewis.

One of the frustrations expressed by the industry was lack of detail, like vaccination thresholds or possible opening dates for the U.S.-Canada border.

While the industry is aware it’s a federal decision, many were still hoping for some direction.

“I was glad to see there is some positive direction there, but I was really hoping to see some metrics to see what targets they have to hit in order to get an opening,” said Clipper Navigation chief executive Dave Gudgel. “I appreciate the timelines, but it still makes it difficult for us to plan.”

Clipper, which sails between downtown Seattle and Victoria’s Inner Harbour, has been idled since March 2020 but could be running within a few weeks of getting an okay.

Gudgel said they will not resume regular service until both Seattle and Victoria are ready and comfortable with accepting the vessels. Clipper will start its Seattle-Friday Harbour service this week.

Ryan Burles, president of Black Ball, which operates the Coho car ferry between Victoria and Port Angeles, Washington, said he is pleased with Tuesday’s announcement and Premier John Horgan’s hope that international travel could be in the cards late this year.

“It’s something that gives us hope,” he said. “It’s encouraging that both governments are starting to talk about what the next stages will be.”

Horgan said international travel will depend on what’s happening globally and they will be guided by Ottawa.

There are other issues with the re-opening plan that still need work, said Reid James, general manager of the Hotel Grand Pacific.

While pleased with the road map, James said there are still questions about hotel-hosted meetings and conferences and if they are considered offices and workspaces or organized events, as well as details about pool and gym capacities.

“I still would like it to be crystal clear that I can book a large conference including a stand-up reception this fall and at what capacity,” he said. “We really need the border to be open have a real summer but recognize that is more complicated and is a federal decision.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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