As the province opens up, and islands and resort communities start accepting visitors, they are having to strike a balance between keeping their communities healthy and maintaining their economic viability.
On the Southern Gulf Islands and in resort communities on Vancouver Island, there’s sweeping beauty, and peace and quiet but limited medical resources.
As a result, during the pandemic, many of these communities have been slow to open their arms to visitors, even fellow British Columbians.
The vocal groups on several islands that asked people to stay home until it was safer have been quieter recently, as the province gradually loosens regulations and small businesses face the harsh realities of no one walking through their doors.
“It’s been a rough battle here for a few months, that’s for sure,” said Stephen Bishop of Sea Breeze Lodge on Hornby Island.
Bishop, who at one point had to lay off 20 staff when he lost 99 per cent of his business, said there were some who loudly discouraged visitors. And early on, he was on side.
“Being socially responsible, we stayed with that whole plan, but we are [now] ready to open up on this island and other commercial ventures are all ready to go,” he said, noting tourism helps 80 per cent of businesses on the island keep their lights on. “Tourism is a huge necessity on the island. People are champing at the bit to get going.”
And people seem eager to visit. Bishop said he has been fielding reservation inquiries from Vancouver Island and beyond every day. Each caller is briefed on health and safety protocols.
The province has indicated it will move to Phase Three of its restart plan next week, allowing travel throughout B.C., opening of hotels and resorts and broader opening of parks.
Many have already started opening or at least preparing to open. Others intend to open later this summer, while a few staples, such as Clayoquot Wilderness Resort on the west coast and Salt Spring Island’s Cedar Beach Resort, have decided to close until next year.
Tourism Ucluelet is trying to fulfill its mandate of bringing tourists to the coast, while respecting community desires to stay safe, said executive director Denise Stys-Norman. “As we start to look at doing things like [marketing] again, we want to make sure we do it in a responsible way and while listening to the community and setting the tone for visitors.”
The tourism body has developed a toolkit that it has posted on its website, outlining what visitors can expect, what’s open and guidelines for places such as visitor centres (only one member of a party should enter). It reminds visitors to adhere to social distancing when walking or hiking through Pacific Rim National Park Reserve or the Wild Pacific Trail.
Stys-Norman said for a resort community, it’s all about finding a balance between keeping businesses running and ensuring everyone is safe in an area that has limited medical resources.
Tourism Vancouver Island said similar resources have been created by Tourism Tofino and community groups on the Gulf Islands.
The tourism group has been monitoring the sentiment in various communities and making sure messages about who is ready for visitors and who is not get out to the public.
For Simpson, who has 16 cabins on 10 acres at Sea Breeze on Hornby, the message cannot be loud enough — the island is open for business. He said he is inundated with calls daily, mostly from Vancouver Island and Vancouver. That demand leads to another big concern — ferry capacity in the summer.
At Poet’s Cove on Pender Island, which opened in two phases over the past week, the ferry is always top of mind. General manager Chris Hall said they are hoping regular summer service will be in place for July and August.
“June looks to be a gradual build-up and July and August looks quite busy,” said Hall, noting the bookings are coming from Victoria and Vancouver. Like many resorts, Poet’s Cove lost international travellers and big events like weddings, but hopes to cater to stay-cations and smaller gatherings.
B.C. Ferries recently increased its service on Gulf Islands routes, and the provincial government said this week that it will provide money to prevent some service cuts.
Spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said B.C. Ferries is already seeing sailing waits on some routes to the islands, which has led to terminal staff asking motorists if they are visitors and sending them to the back of the line if a sailing is full. “Now that traffic is building and we are in overloads, we need to ensure we are prioritizing residents and essential travel.”
A provincial order directs B.C. Ferries to ensure priority loading for vehicles carrying essential goods and supplies, then residents of the destination before anyone else.
At Hastings House Country House Hotel on Salt Spring Island, general manager Alan Lawley said with the resort spread over 20 acres, they have the advantage of space, and strong support from the community, which has been dining at and taking out food from the restaurant. “People want to come here. They are anxious, but they want to be comfortable.”
Lawley said the key is communicating with potential guests about everything from safety measures to ferry schedules and being flexible to deal with change and unforeseen speedbumps.
Hastings House, which does a lot of international business and faced a flurry of cancellations early in the COVID-19 outbreak, expects international visitors to return next year.
As for this summer, bookings are already coming in, he said. “As regulations loosen up, who knows? There is pent-up demand and we could fill up very quickly,” he said.