Tourist-dependent spots waiting for all-clear on reopening to visitors

Some Salt Spring Islanders want to get the all-clear from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry before they welcome visitors this summer. A Hornby Islander can’t wait until tourists return, and Tofino’s mayor says visitors should hold off until at least June.

Communities that depend on tourist income are divided about when and even if visitors should return this summer.

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“We’d really appreciate if folks would stay home and think about making plans for later in the year,” said Islands Trust chairman Peter Luckham.

“Salt Springers would always make visitors welcome. It would be hard for them not to. But what we’re concerned about is the continued transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Although the numbers are low, it does exist on Salt Spring Island and on Vancouver Island, and there are risks for it be contracted and risks for it to be spread.”

Salt Spring Island has limited medical services and a vulnerable demographic, with many older people, Luckham said, and islanders do not want to risk a second wave.

Essential goods and services are also in short supply on the island, he said. “Normally, we’d be starting to gear up for tourist travel in the summer, but with the stresses on the supply chain in the last little while, we’re not really well prepared to host guests.”

Jessica Harkema, executive director of the Salt Spring Chamber of Commerce, agreed, noting that supply lines and transportation lines are inextricably linked.

“If there’s an issue with the ferries because there’s an outbreak, our supply chain goes down and that’s what we rely on. That’s one of our biggest challenges,” she said.

Cancellation of ferry service between Tsawwassen and Salt Spring and reduced sailings from Swartz Bay have put a strain on the community’s capacity to deal with an emergency, said Harkema.

“We’ve adjusted to people staying away and it has been successful. Salt Spring Island is currently not ready for visitors,” she said.

The grocery stores are open as essential services. A couple of restaurants have opened in the past week for takeout only. But there really isn’t anything else open.

The fall fair has been cancelled and there’s no word on the Saturday market.

“A lot will depend on the directives from the province,” Harkema said. “We would love to just flip this around and revive our economies, but we are aware there is a health crisis.”

Deborah Marshall, executive director of public affairs for B.C. Ferries, said anyone thinking of travelling on ferries right now should be aware that ticket agents will be asking drivers and passengers if their travel is essential. “Signs are posted at the ferry terminals saying essential travel only. It truly is an honour system.”

However, B.C. Ferries does not have the mandate to restrict travel, said Marshall. That can only come from Emergency Management B.C.

Amanda Millan, post office clerk in the Co-op store on Hornby Island, said people have been good about staying away, which has turned the island into a kind of ghost town.

“This is the time of year people come to the island for day trips and to open up their cottages. So it’s kind of very eerie because you don’t see anyone around a lot.”

Millan said she is ready to see people again, and she’s not alone.

“There are a lot of Hornby Islanders who support tourists coming back. There are the odd islanders who are against it, but those are the people who have always been against it and want to protect the island,” said Millan.

“But without other people coming to our island, we wouldn’t have the businesses that they all like to enjoy — the coffee huts and the restaurants for lunch and dinner. Those businesses cannot survive on just our community alone. That’s why they close down in the off-season.”

While its doors are closed, the Co-op has been offering online and phone-in shopping, with staff coming to work every day to fill orders. Hornby’s annual music festival has been cancelled, but Millan believes the Wednesday and Saturday market will be open.

“We thought we were isolated before, but we’re really feeling the isolation. We’d like to get back to normal now and get out there and do stuff and enjoy our island with everybody else.”

In Tofino, Mayor Josie Osborne asked people to hold off visiting the community until June, saying the goal is to reopen very slowly, likely starting with visitors from Vancouver Island. “We want to do it carefully and cautiously,” Osborne said.

When Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn reopens to visitors again sometime in June, managing director Charles McDiarmid said the welcome mat will be extended to Vancouver Islanders first.

“We’ll be opening first to Vancouver Island, and as time and circumstance warrant, we’ll open up to the rest of British Columbia,” he said.

When it closed in mid-March, the inn laid off 140 staff members, most of whom are anxious to come back to work, McDiarmid said. Staff will be rehired two weeks before the official opening date — which has yet to be determined — in order to perfect all the new cleaning and physical-distancing protocols they’ll be putting in place, he said.

It will be a much quieter tourism season than usual and that’s OK, McDiarmid said, because the gradual reopening — of both the hotel and the town’s wider economy — will ensure locals and visitors feel comfortable.

The hospitality sector will no doubt feel the pain of fewer international visitors this summer, but Osborne hopes that will be offset by British Columbians exploring their backyard.

“U.S. and international travellers represent about 27% of our summer visitors, so losing that is a significant blow,” Osborne said. “But I think the impact of that will be mitigated by the fact that B.C. residents will be more willing to travel within our province instead of going to the U.S. or overseas.”

Indeed, “staycations” will likely be the travel trend for the next year, she said.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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