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Adapting key to growing regional tourism

Mandy Ryan Francis at her booth during the PAB Lifestyle Expo. – Courtesy of PAB Marine Excursions

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

PORT AUX BASQUES — When COVID hit Newfoundland and Labrador in Mar. 2020, it was unlike anything the province had experienced before. With restrictions in place, not only could people not step out of their ‘bubble’, but many businesses were forced to repeatedly shut their doors either due to COVID exposure or lack of patrons. Among the businesses hit the hardest were those in the tourism sector, and since people were not able to travel to the province for their vacations due to shutdowns, the demand for some services dwindled. With COVID restrictions and regulations in the past, 2022 saw record numbers of travelers returning to the province, not just for Come Home Year, but because it had been two years since they were able to travel safely. In their 2021-2022 Annual Review of Activities, Marine Atlantic boasted 1,642 sailings, 231,299 passengers, 91,335 passenger vehicles, and 90,223 commercial vehicles. This was a significant increase in passenger traffic from the 2020-2021 fiscal year. While commercial traffic reflected similar numbers, 89,723 commercial vehicles, the passenger numbers were much lower. There were 1,498 sailings, 139,988 passengers, and only 50,449 passenger vehicles. Tourism Southwest is an organization dedicated to showcasing the beauty of the Southwest coast and were thankful to see tourism numbers increase last summer. With the increased cost of living, many may not be able to afford to travel this year, but the organization remains optimistic nonetheless. “We are anticipating another busy year this year,” said Cathy Lomond on behalf of Tourism Southwest, who presented a video slideshow showcasing the region during the Lifestyle Expo on May, 5. One family-owned tourism business in Port aux Basques felt the pinch during COVID and is hoping to see numbers continue to increase this year. “Port aux Basques Marine Excursions Inc. is an ocean fishing and cultural boat tour company. We specialize in recreational cod fishing tours and boat tours to coastal communities east of Rose Blanche,” said general manager Mandy Ryan Francis. “We started this business because we saw the need for it in area. We knew we had the skills to operate it, and given that our lead vessel operator is a commercial fisherman whose season slows considerably after the annual commercial lobster fishery closes in late June or early July, we had the time. Most importantly, we are always interested in meeting new people and showing them our beautiful corner of the province from the water’s perspective. Our company started in 2016 and we are about to head into our 7th season.” The pandemic negatively impacted the business, as it did to many others, and numbers haven’t quite gotten back to normal. “Last year was busier because of Come Home Year, but we are still nowhere near our 2019 numbers,” said Ryan Francis. PAB Marine Excursions offers a number of choices for those wanting to get out on the water and experience some of the wonderful things this part of the province has to offer. “Our most popular boat tour is our Resettlements Grand Tour where we take guests to communities like Grand Bruit, West Point and Petites, that have been abandoned over the years through resettlement programs. La Poile is the only isolated active fishing community we visit on this tour. It gives guests the opportunity to interact with local people if they so choose,” explained Ryan Francis. “Our cod and mackerel fishing tours are about two hours in duration. We usually depart from Port aux Basques and sometimes Rose Blanche. Included in our fishing tours is the opportunity to help haul a lobster trap and to see live lobster inside.” Adults aren’t the only ones who enjoy the experiences. PAB Marine Excursions focuses on families too. “Children of all ages love that experience. It affords them the opportunity to ask questions and learn a lot about lobster and the local lobster fishery in general from a commercial lobster harvester,” said Ryan Francis. “All our tours are family friendly. We love catering to children. Watching young people catch fish is an enriching experience for everyone.” If a tour is booked, but people are unsure of which tour they’d like to take part in, there’s a new option that is available. “Skipper’s Choice is a new option that we are introducing this season. Often times when people contact us they don’t always know what they want to do or where they want to go. By choosing a Skipper’s Choice tour they’re always in for a surprise and they’re leaving it up to the skipper to use his knowledge and experience to give them the most memorable experience based on the conditions of the day,” explained Ryan Francis. “He will choose if they go fishing or not and where they will go. This is a great option for those who may be indecisive, but know they want to go out on the water for a couple of hours.” It wasn’t just COVID that impacted Marine Excursions, Hurricane Fiona also took a toll. “Fiona wiped out the docking facilities that we had put in place in the abandoned community of Petites,” said Ryan Francis. “There were also damages to structures in Grand Bruit, so our Resettlements Grand Tour may look a little different this summer.” Regardless, Marine Excursions is moving forward with a positive attitude and hopes to see many tourists this summer. “Bookings are coming in, but again, nothing like 2019, which was a bumper year for tourism in the province. We still have availability in our calendar.” During their tours, there are plenty of sights that can be taken in by those who want the chance to see some of the historical landmarks the Southwest coast has to offer. “The historic Rose Blanche Lighthouse, the last remaining active isolated fishing village of La Poile, the wondrous and mighty waterfalls at Grand Bruit, and some other secret gems we like to keep for our guests,” teased Ryan Francis. Moving forward, Marine Excursions continues to adapt and innovative to draw in the tourist numbers it enjoyed only four years ago. “(We’re going to) keep doing what we are doing, researching new tour ideas and forming partnerships to create packages that visitors want to see to make their planning easier,” said Ryan Francis.

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