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It was the travel bubble that seemed to outlast all others — the Atlantic maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island enjoyed unrestricted travel last summer across their respective borders, while remaining closed to the rest of Canada.

The bubble paused in the winter due to Covid spikes, with plans to be reinstated this year. But with vaccines advancing more rapidly in Canada, following an earlier snag, plus low Covid rates in the Atlantic region, the temptation of recouping summer tourism revenue may have been too strong.

On June 16, New Brunswick exited the bubble and reopened its borders to all of Canada, with no isolation requirement for those with a single dose of Covid vaccine.

“We met our 75 percent one dose vaccination before July 1, so we were able to open up the borders earlier, which was phenomenal,” said Carol Alderdice, CEO of Tourism Industry Association New Brunswick, a 450-member non-profit organization.

Since New Brunswick’s exit, regional unity has given way to the other three maritime provinces following suit in reopening to Canadians, but with a dizzying patchwork of entry requirements that spell varied approaches to welcoming tourism back this summer.

“Government has really made it clear that science will dictate our reopening plan; things evolve, they change,” said Anna Moran, director of research at Tourism Nova Scotia, on the unilateral approaches to reopening. “We are very much on track with other provinces in the Atlantic region.”

Skift reached out to the Tourism Industry Association of Prince Edward Island, Acadian Peninsula Tourism and Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador but did not hear back in time for publication.

For all the return of Canadians to the maritime provinces this summer, tourism leaders agree that a significant revenue boost isn’t expected for the region unless borders reopen to U.S. and international travelers.

“While this is a step in the right direction towards a partial domestic recovery, we are nowhere near out of the woods,”said Susie Grynol, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of Canada, in a statement.

Domestic Pent Up Demand

The Atlantic provinces normally bring in about 33 percent of New Brunswick’s tourism revenue.

For Nova Scotia, Atlantic Canadians make up 50 percent of outside visitors, second to Nova Scotians who reach up to the mid 40 percent range.

“The Atlantic bubble really did stimulate travel that wouldn’t have happened had it not been open,” said Moran, while noting that there was also some hesitancy from locals to cross maritime borders.

New Brunswick’s Alderdice said that even with the bubble and a travel incentive program that gave 20 percent back to travelers on $1,000 spent, businesses would not have survived the past year of little to no revenue without the federal government’s emergency wage and emergency rent subsidies.

The return of a fuller domestic tourism sector this summer holds more promise for the Atlantic region.

Since announcing a reopening to all Canadians, pent up demand has quickly manifested in spite of the patchwork of entry requirements. It was initially led by friends and family, and later boosted by return visitors.

“From talking to some of the contacts across the region, the reservations have been coming in, left, right and center,” said Alderdice. “In the southeast, they said the phones are ringing off the hook, in the Atlantic Peninsula they said that all campgrounds and restaurants are booked solid from mid July to mid August.”

For Nova Scotia, up to 86 percent of its visitors come from Canada and just 14 percent from outside of Canada.

“Domestic travel always has been and will continue to be bread and butter for Nova Scotia tourism businesses.”

News reports confirmed that Nova Scotia’s Halifax Stanfield International Airport saw more passengers traveling in the first week of the lifted restrictions than it had during the past 15 months.

Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland and Labrador province said it remained closed last summer despite the Atlantic bubble, because pre-pandemic less than five percent of its guests were from Atlantic Canada region. Most visitors were from other parts of the country, the U.S. and Europe.

“Since our reopening a few days ago, we are seeing tremendous pent-up demand from Canadian travellers materializing in solid bookings for 2021 and 2022,” said Sorya Gaulin, vice president of marketing and social business development at Fogo Island Inn. “Our summer months are already very busy and we are seeing more demand so far for late fall stays.”

Jennifer Haddow, owner of Wild Women Expeditions, based in Newfoundland, said that women were now more motivated to book a group tour for the extra support and assurance in navigating a new normal in travel.

“More women are booking trips right now than we have seen in the past 30 years of being in business! Our trips this summer are almost all full, especially in Canada and the U.S.”

A Continued Push for U.S.-Canada Border Reopening

Before Covid hit, Atlantic Canada’s tourism revenue reached $6 billion, and the region had been enjoying a three-year streak of record tourism numbers. But that was with U.S. and international travelers in addition to Canadians.

“As much as the local tourism is picking up it’s simply not comparable, there’s a lot of operators that count on the U.S., especially the outfitters, the fishing and hunting across Canada,” Alderdice said.

For Nova Scotia, while visitors from international markets make up just about 14 percent of non-resident visitation, their tourism contribution amounts to 25 percent.

“So we’re really looking forward to seeing international travel restrictions ease even more,” Moran said.

Gaulin added that U.S. guests had been inquiring about booking small groups at Fogo Island Inn and using private air charters to get there.

Haddow has seen similar inquiries from U.S. women eager to tour Canada.

“We have been encouraging everyone to hold patience, as we do the work needed in Canada to get our immunizations up and infection rates down,” said Haddow. “We feel like we are close to seeing a policy change where visitors can come to Canada without quarantine.”

On Tuesday, Canada’s broader tourism industry groups — including the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, plus associations representing indigenous tourism, hotels, the arts, festivals and events — launched a new “Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses” asking the Canadian government not to reduce the emergency wage and rent subsidies, which began winding down on July 4.

The group’s letter addressed to Canada’s deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and copied to tourism minister Melany Joly recommends a tailored wage and fixed cost support program be established for businesses experiencing revenue losses of more than 40 percent, to help them survive and save two million jobs until 2022.

Whether the U.S.-Canada border closure will extend beyond July 21, remains unclear but Atlantic Canada’s travel industry sees a light at the end of the tunnel with the bubble popped and Canadians able to visit.

“We are really hopeful to have a much better year,” said Moran. “Today on July 7, it feels like we can breathe again, so I know it’s cautious optimism, but oh my gosh, it is such a place of happiness right now.”

Photo Credit: New Brunswick (pictured here) burst the Atlantic bubble first in June by reopening to all Canadians who have received a first Covid vaccine dose. James Mann / Flickr Commons