Staycationers still a key market as Coast expands its tourism bubble

Sunshine Coast Tourism’s (SCT) Paul Kamon says last week’s announcement from Premier John Horgan that the province was ready for Phase 3 of the restart plan was “a breath of air for a lot of businesses that have been suffocating.”

Kamon, the executive director of the destination marking organization, said at a recent forum of community leaders hosted by the mayor of Gibsons that heading into 2020 the tourism sector on the Sunshine Coast was coming off three record seasons.

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Accommodation revenue alone in 2019 had hit around $20 million for traditional operations like hotels and resorts and some $8 million for short-term rentals.

Kamon told Coast Reporter this week that local tourism businesses are already seeing a wave of bookings.

“I can tell you anecdotally that a number of accommodations are fully booked for the summer already, with bookings coming in for September,” he said. “There is a pent-up travel demand that has been unleashed.”

Kamon said he is also hearing anecdotally that RV traffic is on the rise.

“That’s the new reality, that’s the new B.C. vacation. People are buying RVs, renting RVs and just getting in them and going on a big explore and that’s great for our communities.”

Before B.C. went into Phase 3, SCT launched a marketing program aimed at encouraging Coasters to become tourists in their own backyards called “Coast Love.”

“The Coast Love campaign is going to continue all summer because we want to build back our support with our community and our residents and build our civic pride in our communities that have taken a big hit,” Kamon said, adding that part of the campaign is also designed to get people out to support local businesses.

With Phase 3 underway, SCT is also gearing up to get back to marketing focused on other regions of B.C., especially the Lower Mainland, where Kamon estimates about 80 per cent of the Coast’s visitors come from.

SCT’s Visitor Information Centres in Sechelt and Gibsons were expected to open July 1, but mainly using their outdoor spaces instead of having visitors come inside.

“The ‘explore later’ messaging is going to start to shift, particularly to B.C. residents, where we’re going to start inviting them to come explore the Sunshine Coast, but the primary messaging we’re putting out there is to do it safely,” Kamon said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been stressing what she calls “travel manners,” which she said means planning ahead, respecting local travel advisories, especially in smaller and rural towns or First Nations territory, and not travelling at all if you’re sick.

“We want to inspire people to travel close to home and explore their backyards and remind people they’re exploring the traditional territories of the Tla’amin, Klahoose, shíshálh and Squamish nations, but ultimately they have a big responsibility both as hosts and guests to our community, to be safe and responsible and respectful,” Kamon said. “So that’s where we’re starting to turn our messaging outside of the Coast – inviting people in, but with a very strong message of being responsible and safe, and patient and kind.”

Premier Horgan said during the announcement of Phase 3 he recognized that even with more opportunities to travel, tourism operators are facing a challenging summer.

“The biggest concern I have for economic restart is the absence of literally hundreds of thousands of international travellers who have historically looked at British Columbia as a place to come and visit – that’s going to have a profound impact on the tourism economy,” Horgan said.

Kamon, who sits on the Southern Sunshine Coast Ferry Advisory Committee, said as well as the loss of international visitors, Sunshine Coast tourism businesses will also have to deal with a BC Ferries system that will be under more pressure than usual this summer.

“[Phase 3] is a huge step for us, for sure, but getting people to the Sunshine Coast is the trick,” Kamon said. “Ferries is standing on their head trying to provide us the service that we desperately need, but they have constraints that we have to understand. And those constraints are making it really difficult for them to get us back to normal.”

Kamon said he’s confident the local tourism industry is well placed to “salvage whatever we can out of our summer” before starting to focus on September and October, which he said will likely mark the start of the “real recovery.”

“We're hoping [our season] extends and we’re hoping that people continue travelling in September and October in greater numbers,” he said.

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