Sunny Days

Nova Scotia had another strong month for tourism in July. There are several reasons for this success, but the Yarmouth Ferry is not one of them.

There were an estimated 367,000 visitors in the month of July, up 7% over 2015. Year-to-date visits are up 8%. More importantly, accommodation room nights—a better measure of economic impact—were up 6% in July to 374,000.

The success rate was uneven. The Northumberland Shore region is actually down 3% both in July and year-to-date. Halifax is up only 3% in July.

The real star is Cape Breton, which is up 14% to 80,000 room nights. A big contributor to that has been the Cabot Links resort, which is experiencing extraordinary success.

The 200 caddies that began the season have been constantly busy; the courses could have used 50 more. The accommodation, food service, and property maintenance areas employ at least 300 more.

Beyond that, there is an extensive and continuous program of new construction to meet the growing demand for facilities and to broaden the range of recreational options. Inverness was a dying town until recently. In season, there are now more jobs than workers who can fill them. People are returning and school enrolments are growing.

An interest-paying loan to facilitate the second golf course was one of the previous NDP government’s few good investments, tainted only by the failure to disclose that the first three years were interest free.

Cabot’s success has follow-on benefits for other tourist destinations, especially high end golf properties like Highland Links and Fox Harb’r.

Interestingly, the biggest challenge for them going forward is also reported by other hospitality operators—namely, to attract and retain good quality staff.

What might be the reasons for the strong increase in tourism, and what do those reasons tell us about the prospects for the future?

A Canadian dollar under 80 cents US is a big help, and more than makes up for our eye-watering sales tax rates. Americans were the biggest source of visitor growth. Gas prices are low, which makes it cheaper to drive from Montreal or New York.

WestJet’s introduction of service on the Boston-Halifax route has made airfares a lot more competitive. On some days, a return flight can be had for under $400 USD.

The very sunny summer of 2016 may have been tough for farmers and people on the South Shore with wells, but it has been great for tourism. Summer 2016 has attracted visitors who check the weather before travelling, encouraged Nova Scotians to stay at home, and prompted people to spend more time visiting outdoor attractions.

Canada is safe. Terrorism events in Europe and elsewhere may have encouraged Americans to stay closer to home.

Some operators give a bit of credit to the “Trump bump” triggered by a tongue-in-cheek website inviting Americans despairing of the prospects of a Trump presidency to give Cape Breton a try.

More likely to have been important is the addition of attractive destinations like Cabot Links.

One thing that did not have much impact is the Yarmouth Ferry. It was understandably left unmentioned in the press release touting the good results. To the end of July it has delivered about 6,000 visitors. The full season number is unlikely to exceed 15,000 by the time service ends on October 1st.

Premier McNeil, speaking in support of the ferry, correctly observed that “the tourism numbers speak for themselves”. Indeed they do. Perhaps he should look at them more closely.

The ferry will bring less than 1% of our visitors for the year, and the ferry subsidy will have cost close to $1,000 per visitor. It’s lucky the other 2+ million annual visitors to Nova Scotia don’t each cost as much. Of course, the ferry also facilitates vacations in the United States for Nova Scotians who might otherwise have stayed at home—your tax dollars at work.

What are our future prospects?

We cannot count on as much sunny weather in future years, nor on a beneficial impact from political developments or security scares in other countries.

Gas prices may remain low for a while (and the Canadian dollar with them), but that too could change, and is certainly beyond our control.

What we can substantially influence is the visitor experience. Halifax has a great restaurant and bar scene and a wonderful waterfront. We have many attractive and historic towns. We have more coastline than California or Florida, and most countries. Our Aboriginal, Acadian, and Gaelic roots provide distinctive cultural flavours.

The quality of service that is provided will have a big impact on return visits and word-of-mouth reputation. The quality of roads and other infrastructure (twinned highways are a great thing) make life more pleasant for visitors.

We are spending $14 million per year subsidizing the ferry. The impact ends the day after the season ends.

The same money would be much better spent improving physical and human capital: twinning highways, improving access to coastlines, parks, and recreational facilities, enhancing attractiveness of main streets large and small, and providing excellent development programs for workers in hospitality industries.

These would go a lot further toward improving the sustainability of this year’s encouraging results in tourism.

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