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‘Cancellations for rest of summer’: Summerland tourism operators take major financial hit due to COVID-19

‘Cancellations for rest of summer’: Summerland tourism operators take major financial hit due to COVID-19
While the economic repercussions of COVID-19 are being felt by everyone, for small tourism-related businesses, the impact has been devastating. Shelby Thom reports.

John Lathey has been forced to delay his retirement plans as the novel coronavirus pandemic devastates the Okanagan’s tourism and hospitality sector.

The 65-year-old owns the Summerland Motel off of Highway 97, and occupancy rates have plummeted.

“It was as if somebody turned a light switch off middle of March,” Lathey told Global News on Wednesday.

“Cancellations basically for the rest of the summer have happened. People are not taking any chances at all,” he said.

READ MORE: B.C. reports 4 new COVID-19 deaths as cases at poultry plants climb

While there are still a lot of unknowns in regards to what summer will look like this year amid the public health emergency, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, says mass gatherings of more than 50 people are likely to remain banned.

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That has prompted organizers of large-scale events to cancel or delay summer events and festivals.

“Many people come here because of the events, and all of the events are now cancelled for the foreseeable future, so their reason for coming is gone,” Lathey said.

The Summerland Motel is extending monthly rentals and Lathey qualified for a small business loan to stay afloat, but it remains to be seen when he will turn a profit.

Osoyoos town council braces for multi-million dollar tourism hit
Osoyoos town council braces for multi-million dollar tourism hit

“We’re a seasonal business and we have to look to next summer to survive,” Lathey said. “We weathered 2008; it took four years to get back to where we were before 2008 happened.

“I think it will take longer this time.”

Lathey added that the Okanagan’s tourism industry may look very different once leisure travel is permitted.

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“I think that people will not have the money or the confidence to start travelling again for quite a long time, so it will probably be a much more expensive and exclusive tourism industry we get back to,” he said.

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It’s not only accommodations, but retailers, wineries and restaurants also anticipate a major financial hit this summer.

Coronavirus Impacts on Okanagan Tourism
Coronavirus Impacts on Okanagan Tourism

Zias Stonehouse Restaurant, a staple in the community for more than two decades, has been forced to fully close since March 17.

“Our clientele is elderly and we just felt we couldn’t carry on,” said restaurant owner Shannon Ferlitzza.

Zias Stonehouse restaurant owner Shannon Ferlitzza says this summer’s tourism season could look bleak in the Okanagan.
Zias Stonehouse restaurant owner Shannon Ferlitzza says this summer’s tourism season could look bleak in the Okanagan. Shelby Thom\Global News

Ferlitzza had to make the difficult decision to layoff 35 staff members and cash reserves are allowing her to still pay the bills as revenue drops to zero.

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“This whole valley, we depend on tourism, tourism is our life, that is why we are here, we are in the hospitality business. It’s going to be one tough summer,” she said.

In downtown Summerland, many storefronts are temporarily closed, but some small businesses such as The Beanery Cafe have managed to adapt with physical distancing protocols in place.

READ MORE: COVID-19 hits tourism businesses, costing Canadian cities millions in revenue

“It’s very drastic to go from the only meeting place in Summerland where people could come and meet up and hang out, to people not being able to sit down and having to space themselves. The environment has been changed,” said cafe owner Braden Jones.

Many retail storefronts are temporarily closed in downtown Summerland due to COVID-19
Many retail storefronts are temporarily closed in downtown Summerland due to COVID-19. Shelby Thom\Global News

The Summerland Chamber of Commerce says it is shifting from the response phase of the public health emergency — helping small businesses apply for financial aid– to economic recovery.

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“The next step will be the recovery part and the important thing with recovery is the tide will rise eventually. We don’t know when, and the rising tide raises all boats, and our goal is to make sure everyone has a boat,” said the chamber’s executive director, David Hull.

“We won’t be back to normal, call it the new normal, call it 2021, the way the world looked on February 1st of this year, we don’t see that again,” Hull said.

READ MORE: ‘Please stay away’: B.C. tourist towns urge outsiders to stay home under COVID-19

On Wednesday, Premier John Horgan extended B.C.’s state of emergency. He added, though, that while indicators for this year’s tourism season look dark, there is a robust rebound forecast for 2021.

“Some six per cent growth rate projected for British Columbia from most of the private sector forecasters, so I’m looking to the horizon, hopefully, that we can endure this difficult time,” Horgan said.

Coronavirus outbreak: B.C. will announce plans to reopen next week, extends state of emergency for another 14 days
Coronavirus outbreak: B.C. will announce plans to reopen next week, extends state of emergency for another 14 days

“We will also need to ensure that we are focused on how do we welcome the world to British Columbia again when it comes to tourism, and how do we ensure that people will want to purchase our products again,” the premier said.

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As small business owners wait with bated breath to hear how the province plans to reopen the economy, all they can do now is to try to stay positive.

“I miss our customers and hi,” Ferlitzza said.  “We love you and hope that we can come back sooner than later.”