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Lighthouses go dark from lack of visitors

Maxine Edwards (President) and Phyllis Horwood (Secretary) are members of RB Lighthouse Inc. volunteer board which runs the historic lighthouse. – Submitted

SOUTHWEST COAST – It’s been 20 years and a lot of hard work from its volunteer board, but the historic lighthouse attraction in Rose Blanche is making significant strides towards becoming self-sustaining, or at least it seemed that way until COVID-19 threw an unexpected curveball into this summer’s plans.

The extra sanitization costs involved would have meant increased expenses just for cleaning, and with no visitors allowed into the province prior to the Atlantic bubble, the RB Lighthouse board felt it made more financial sense to keep the facility closed.

“If I had a business of my own, yes, I could try it, maybe make half of what I made last year and I got something out of it,” says Phyllis Horwood, who is the Secretary of RB Lighthouse Inc. “But the long-term goal was the viability of the whole site.”

About 80 percent of the lighthouse’s revenue comes from tourists outside the province, especially Québec and Ontario. Even with a push from the provincial government’s Staycation NL promotion, that drastic decrease in visitors would have set those plans for self-sustainability back even further. Although the lighthouse will continue to receive its operational grant of $8,000 from the provincial government, tourists remain its primary source of funding.

“We’ve got bills all year long. Like we’ve got over $5,000 in light bills every year,” notes Horwood. “The visitation was the biggest factor because that is where our revenue comes from – visitation – and we knew that would be down big time.”

Horwood says that The Lightkeepers Inn B&B was also growing in popularity after it was registered on Airbnb. Prior to the pandemic, it seemed reasonable to expect that it would continue to increase in popularity. After the provincial borders were closed to non-residents and prior to the Atlantic bubble, opening the accommodation would have meant operating at a loss.

“We would have been able to rent only one room at a time because of social distancing,” says Horwood. ““If previous years were any indication, Newfoundland alone wasn’t going to do it for us.”

Also factoring into the decision was the cost of hiring employees. There are government programs to help offset some of the staffing expenses but it would have still been insufficient to cover the cost.

Moreover, since the lighthouse is a non-profit organization, summer tourist revenues also help to offset startup costs for the following season, which meant that choosing to open this year even for provincial tourism would reverberate into next season.

The lighthouse saw an estimated 5,300 visitors last year, some from as far away as Europe. That number has remained consistent, or increased slightly, over the past few years.

“We did so well with our B&B, we thought this year we’re going to pay off our loan, because we’ve got a loan for the B&B,” adds Maxine Edwards, President of RB Lighthouse Inc. “This summer was going to bring us out right on top and we’d be moving forward and finally become almost, but not quite, self-sustainable.”

“We didn’t want to go in debt at a point to where you’re not going to recover,” says Edwards.

“It’s so hard to build it up but it is happening,” promises Horwood.

In an effort to keep the site open for locals to enjoy the scenery and take a walk, the main gate was left open and signage was posted advising guests they were welcome to walk the trails, albeit at their own risk.

Plans for future upgrades after the tourists return and the loan is paid off are still in their infancy, but one idea is a Newfoundland twist on camping known as glamping, or glamorous camping. This is camping with extra amenities or services as opposed to traditional tent camping.

“How nice they would be out there by the ocean?” asks Horwood rhetorically.

About an hour’s drive up the coast, the Cape Ray Lighthouse Museum and Crafts also chose not to open this summer. Like the Rose Blanche lighthouse, Cape Ray depends heavily on tourists and the income generated by its craft shops.

Other than grants to help employ workers, Cape Ray doesn’t receive any government funding.

Anne Osmond, Chairperson of the Cape Ray Lightkeepers Museum Committee says that the museum simply wasn’t prepared to open after the pandemic forced its initial closure.

“When we open we have the craft store all ready, and people weren’t prepared to bring in their crafts,” explains Osmond. “And we do very well from on the craft store from local crafts.”

In order to help offset existing expenses like insurance, the non-profit museum will try drumming up some contributions by appealing to the region’s residents. They’ve already held one, a grocery bingo that Osmond says raised about $700. Details surrounding future fundraisers are still being worked out.

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