Newfoundland's whale tour operators eager to see tail end of pandemic

·3 min read
Tour company co-owner Joe O'Brien says Newfoundland and Labrador market is simply not enough to sustain tourism in the province. (Submitted by Kris Prince - image credit)
Tour company co-owner Joe O'Brien says Newfoundland and Labrador market is simply not enough to sustain tourism in the province. (Submitted by Kris Prince - image credit)
Submitted by Kris Prince
Submitted by Kris Prince

On Saturday, Joe O'Brien was delighted to have a full crowd aboard one of his boats to witness Newfoundland's usual spectacle of spouting humpbacks and puffins flitting across the water.

But the co-owner of O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tours says he'll feel even better once the borders open up to the rest of the country.

"We're in Year 2 of the pandemic and we can see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

June 12 marked the first sail of the season for O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tours and their partners, Gatherall's Puffin and Whale Watch.

The tour companies hopes that, come July, the easing of travel restrictions for vaccinated Canadians will bring business back to Bay Bulls, a town just south of St. John's. Most of the companies' clientele comes from Ontario and western Canada, O'Brien said, and when the province closed its borders last year, access to that crucial market was cut off.

The lack of out-of-province visitors nearly sunk the boat tour business altogether, he said.

Gary Locke/CBC
Gary Locke/CBC

Most of the passengers aboard for Saturday's sailing were from within the province, O'Brien said, and though he appreciates the support, that market constitutes just a tiny percentage of the tour company's clientele — not nearly enough to keep them afloat.

Newfoundland and Labrador typically sees about half a million out-of-province visitors every year. According to tourism statistics, as of October that figure had fallen by nearly 80 per cent.

The drop in revenues is what prompted the O'Briens and the Gatheralls — formerly arch-rivals in the boat touring business — to team up last year.

This year is looking more promising, O'Brien says, with bus tour companies already inquiring about advance bookings.

But, he said, rebuilding consumer confidence will be a gradual process, and increased leisure travel will be a key component.

O'Brien's business partner Mike Gatherall, owner of Gatherall's Puffin & Whale Watch, says Newfoundland is at a disadvantage to other destinations that are easier to reach.

"Logistically, getting people to N.L. has always been an issue," he said. "We've spent about the past 25 years really building and trying to get that capacity built in."

Last fall, Air Canada cut flights to Deer Lake, and WestJet reduced its Atlantic Canada service by 80 per cent.

In January, Air Canada cut service to Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Gander. The company also halted direct routes between St. John's and Toronto, severing a vital connection that accounted for roughly half of pre-pandemic passengers into St. John's.

But there are signs of hope. Air Canada restored Gander and Goose Bay flights on June 1, and Saturday saw the arrival of the first direct flight from Toronto to St. John's in over five months.

These, along with other positive developments — such as the imminent opening of the Atlantic bubble — give O'Brien reason to believe change is on the horizon.

"Who knows?" he said. "Down the road we might even see our neighbours, the Americans, open up our border and we'll get on the other side of this pandemic."

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