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Area tourism operators get provincial funding

Tracey Lee Hunt of Stephenville (left) enjoyed a pleasant staycation tour of Grand Bruit courtesy of Mandy Ryan Francis, owner and operator of Port aux Basques Marine Excursions, which offers resettlement and fishing tours. Like most tourism operators in the province, Francis has taken a significant financial hit thanks to the global pandemic. – courtesy of PAB Marine Excursions

By ROSALYN ROY

PORT AUX BASQUES – On Friday, Jan. 8, the province announced a small extension for its Tourism Hospitality Support Program. The program is designed to help offset the financial impact of COVID-19, which has been felt throughout the province, and by operators along the Southwest Coast.

The deadline has been pushed back to Friday, Jan. 29, and successful applicants can receive a one-time, non-repayable contribution of either $5,000 or $10,000, dependent on gross sales. Operators with less than $10,000 in sales reported in 2019 can still receive funding of up to 50 percent of gross sales or 50 percent of initial startup costs.

As COVID-19 continues to hamstring the Newfoundland and Labrador tourism industry and threatens to derail this year’s summer season, the government hopes that operators can use this funding to hang on until the pandemic abates and tourism starts to recover.

“Operators involved in the provincial tourism and hospitality sector contribute in many ways to our economy. The Tourism and Hospitality Support Program provides eligible operators with access to support to assist with the financial impacts being faced as a result of the pandemic,” wrote MHA Andrew Parsons, Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology in the news release.

Mandy Ryan Francis of Port aux Basques Marine Excursions says that the hit to her outfitting business is worse than what she had initially feared, and even enrolling in the province’s Staycation NL campaign and social media marketing was not enough to make up the difference.

“About 90-95 percent of the guests we hosted this past season originated from this province. There just weren’t enough of them to make up for what we would normally get from Central Canada and the U.S.,” stated Francis via e-mail.

Port aux Basques Marine Excursions also refunded all bookings for guests who live outside the Atlantic bubble. As the province kept rolling out new programs, Francis kept abreast of possible relief funding by contacting the local tourism office. Under the Tourism Hospitality Support Program, PAB Marine Excursions was able to receive funding to help take care of fixed business costs.

“It was a relatively straightforward application process,” says Francis.

In fact, it only took Francis five days from the time she submitted the application to receiving approval. To date, the program has approved over 1,096 applications, and Parsons, who also serves as MHA Burgeo-La Poile, hopes that more tourism operators along the Southwest Coast will send in an application.

“We’re trying to help these really cool ventures,” said Parsons via phone interview on Wednesday, Jan. 6.

Part of that help involves trying to find new ways to market tourism businesses during a global pandemic.

“There’s so many challenges that they’re facing – be it the Atlantic bubble, COVID restrictions, and so on,” noted Parsons. “That doesn’t mean you just let your business die. You’ve got to figure out a way. How do you get around that?”

The lack of tourism has a larger rippling affect. Airlines are cutting back too, meaning airports and their stores and suppliers are struggling.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Air Canada cut all routes to Labrador, and suspended routes between Gander and Halifax, Goose Bay and Halifax, and St. John’s and Toronto beginning Saturday, Jan. 23. The carrier, which has received significant federal funding, cited “stifled demand” thanks to provincial travel and quarantine restrictions.

Those restrictions aren’t likely to ease anytime soon either. Health Minister John Haggie has stated that even with vaccinations starting to roll out, the current provincial guidelines may remain in effect into 2022. For smaller operators who cannot offset revenues by targeting staycationers or Atlantic bubble tourism, that length of time can mean a death blow.

“We, as a province, have done extremely well with our (COVID-19 infection) numbers, but what’s the price for that?,” asked Parsons rhetorically. “Obviously I’m very supportive of anybody in my district, and now that I’m running this department I’m learning more about it. I think it’s a golden opportunity.”

Parsons encourages any small business entrepreneur or tourism operator to contact Bruce Billard, who is the region’s Economic Development Officer.

“It’s not about giving money away to businesses. It’s about government trying to make investments,” said Parsons. “There are ways forward.”

On Friday, Jan. 15, Premier Andrew Furey’s office announced a new advisory council had been formed to help develop short-term and long term initiatives to support the battered tourism industry.

“We are an industry that reflects our culture, our arts and our history – a true reflection of who we are as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. This has been a devastating time for the tourism industry, we have had unprecedented challenges and uncertainty at every step this past year. But this is an industry built upon ingenuity and I see this council as an opportunity to harness our collective energies as we navigate our way through the effects of COVID-19 on our industry and to economic recovery. We are a group of people who have built businesses from pure innovation here in Newfoundland and Labrador. This innovation is now called upon as we gather as a council to look at not only the immediate needs for our industry, but the opportunities for the future. Tourism has the ability to be a game changer in our economy. Our growth and success is built upon showing the world who we are,” wrote Jill Curran, Chair, Premier’s Advisory Council on Tourism.

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