Despite making significant progress in attracting more visitors and generating $2.6 billion in revenue last year, the province’s tourism industry is still a long way from the goal of $4 billion by 2024 envisioned by the Ivany Report five years ago.
“We’re updating our strategy which we are calling The Second Half,” Judy Saunders told hundreds of tourism operators assembled at the Westin Hotel for the industry’s annual conference. Saunders, who chairs the Board of the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS), is not giving up on the ambitious target set by Ivany but says it will take much more work.
“We have an incredible opportunity but it is time for a re-set and a critical review,” said Saunders. “Unless we adjust out approach to tourism, we won’t get there.”
Sobering statistics for 2019 appear to support that view. As of the end of September, the number of people who visited Nova Scotia had declined by 4% from the previous year. Disruptions from Hurricane Dorian were blamed for a 13% drop in September but the number of travellers was already down for July and August, the peak of the season.
“We need a robust air access strategy that looks to move people in,” said Saunders. “We need greater accountability for how public money is spent and a regional growth strategy that will make tourism a 365-day business.”
“There’s no doubt that the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft this past March has negatively impacted the number of visitors coming to Nova Scotia,” confirmed Joyce Carter. Carter, the CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority, was the keynote lunch speaker. She observed visitors who travel by air tend to stay longer and spend more than other travellers; last year Stanfield Airport greeted 4.3 million passengers. Carter estimates that number will be down by 2% — or 86,000 fewer passengers — when all the data are in for 2019.
The safety problems encountered with the 737s forced airlines to turn to smaller planes to maintain service. But the grounding of the 737s resulted in the outright cancellation of direct flights from Halifax to Dublin, to London, England, and to Iceland, which have not resumed since mid-March.
“Once those aircraft are re-certified, we are confident we will get those airlines back”, Carter told the crowd. Asked why she thought the 737s would fly again, the airport executive said her opinion is based on discussions with Air Canada, WestJet, and Iceland Air. Carter says Air Canada hopes to resume service by the end of March.
Convincing airlines based in China and the United States, which do not currently fly into Halifax, is another big challenge. More direct flights mean more people arriving to spend money on food, accommodations, culture, and outdoor activities.
“With so much international competition, we increasingly have to ‘pay to play’ or offer airlines an incentive to get them to come here for more than a few months in the summer,” said Carter. “The one-time funding the provincial government provided in 2017 helped us get new direct flights from Philadelphia, Chicago, and London, Ontario. Having discount carriers such as Flare and Swoop also brings to the province travellers who otherwise would not come.”
Tourism Minister Geoff MacLellan attended the lunch and took part in a “fireside chat” with Saunders. MacLellan says he is “open” to the idea of using provincial funds to attract more direct flights to Nova Scotia, particularly if China is on that list. The minister said “April 1” is the target date to implement new regulations the tourism industry has been seeking, to register people who provide short-term rentals or Airbnb accommodations without having to pay tax or test the drinking water or provide services that licensed tourism operators must.
MacLellan admitted the province “has been late to the party” in establishing a more level playing field for tourism operators such as Virginia Tudor. She employs 26 people at the Brier Lodge and Restaurant on Brier Island. Tudor complained the presence of what she called 300 “ghost hotels” in Digby County not only makes it harder to provide jobs for locals but the fees charged by Americans and Asians who rent out short-term accommodations that they own is money that is not staying in the province but flowing to another country.
TIANS wants everyone who rents out a room — even people who live in their home — to register their short-term rental accommodation. The government’s proposed regulations wouldn’t go that far: they would permit owners to rent out rooms in homes they occupy without registering. MacLellan is not inclined to change that but promised to keep the lines of communication open with TIANS after the new regulations come in.
“Airbnb is not the enemy here,” warned Michele Saran, the CEO of Tourism Nova Scotia, the government agency responsible for executing the provincial tourism growth strategy. Saran said Airbnb rentals grew by 77% in 2018 and are a big part of attracting more visitors to the province, particularly in rural areas where there is not the availability of hotel rooms and accommodations found in larger towns and cities.
Short-term rentals will be important as the province tries to attract visitors year-round by pursuing and creating events in the sports or cultural sphere in the spring and winter months. Events such as the Scotties Tournament of Hearts (curling) in Sydney last February boosted accommodations by $1.4 million. Hockey fans attending the Memorial Cup tournament last May in Halifax contributed an estimated $8.6 million. On a smaller scale, this will be the third February for the South Shore Lobster Crawl which celebrates lobster in true lobster season (winter, not summer, in the Shelburne area) and aims to attract people from all over the globe to eat and even drink a craft beer called Crustacean Elation.
Last winter, White Point Marketing director Donna Hatt worked with the South Shore Tourism Cooperative to take a handful of American travel writers lobster fishing in the dead of winter. Their published accounts were off-the-beaten-track enough to generate the equivalent of $2 million in free advertising, claims Hatt. Hatt says her goal is “to live long enough to see February bring in as many visitors as August to the South Shore.”
That kind of creative thinking as well as cooperation by local businesses, who often need to be persuaded why they should open early or stay open longer to serve visitors who come to attend a major sporting event or music festival, will be critical if tourism is going to become a year-round and larger economic force in the future.
Michele Saran from Tourism Nova Scotia also presented numbers from 2018 that showed more than 70% of visitors from Ontario and Quebec, 80% from the United States, and more than 90% of European travellers booked their accommodations online. “Tourism and tourists continue to evolve,” said Saran. “People expect to be able to make a reservation online and if you don’t have that booking capability through your website, you will lose that sale.”
One-on-one appointments with companies hired to help tourism businesses spiff up their websites are available tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the minister of Tourism was asked when a $190-million fund set up in March 2018 would begin delivering high-speed Internet to under-served rural customers, including tourism operators.
Develop NS is the provincial agency responsible to tender the Request For Proposals now that it has pre-qualified a dozen internet service providers. The agency estimates 88,000 Nova Scotia households or businesses are eligible for a high-speed connection or an upgrade. That’s a lot of people. Minister MacLellan says the first “batch” of RFPs will go out early in 2020 and should improve service for half of these customers.
After a slow start, perhaps tourism operators will finally have the means to improve their game and invite the world to discover Nova Scotia.