The New Reality: Nova Scotia wineries, tourism sector grapple with uncertain future

N.S. tourism sector working to adapt and attract stay-cationers during COVID-19
Global’s Ashley Field takes us to wine country in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to learn how the industry is adapting.

This is the first in a series of stories looking at the new reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in Atlantic Canada. You can find the full series here

Nova Scotia wine country is normally a busy place this time of year, but COVID-19 has put a wrench in the typical tourist season.

Luckett Vineyards attracts thousands of visitors annually, but right now, its wine tasting room and restaurant in the Gaspereau Valley sits empty.

“This is actually our open season right now, technically. Today, a sunny Monday, the place would be packed, the car park full, people sitting on the patio, with a tent, out of the wind, of course, enjoying lunch here, buying wine, having a great time and it would be a beautiful day,” said Pete Luckett, owner of Luckett Vineyards.

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“As you can see right now, the car park is empty and there’s not a soul here except me and you.”

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Luckett says they hope to open in July, but that remains up in the air.

“Literally we can’t plan. We can only anticipate what might happen,” he tells Global News. “That is the biggest scary thing about being in the wine industry right now, not just the present, but where are we going.”

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The winery has adapted its business model, now delivering to Halifax Regional Municipality and across the province.

Nearby Grand Pre Winery has seen an uptick in online sales, and sales through the Wolfville Farmers’ Market.

“We have really to be creative what to do with our warehouse — with the wine in the warehouse,” says Hanspeter Stutz, the winery’s president and CEO.

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“It’s not the moment to step backwards or take your lounge chair and sit down. You have to be creative and do the best you can do.”

While he and his team adapt to a world with COVID-19, he would like to see more being done to help the province’s wine industry.

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“We need a better support from our key retailer – NSLC,” says Stutz, pointing to the Taste of Nova Scotia’s buy local initiative. “Perhaps stop a little importing and pushing wines from outside Canada and think about the local products.”

Impact of COVID-19 on tourism

This downturn in tourism has not only impacted area wineries, but businesses the industry supports.

Nearly 10,000 tourists visited the Annapolis Valley via the Magic Winery Bus last year. But on Monday, it cancelled all bookings for May and June.

“We’ve never had to cancel. We’ve been very fortunate that every Saturday, consistently over our last couple of seasons, we’ve been sold out with 150 people per day,” says David Hovell, part owner of the company, noting that the Magic Winery Bus has an economic impact of just over $3-million for the region.

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“When we have to cancel a departure, that means they’re not going to dine out after their trip, they may not be staying at a local inn or bed and breakfast, they may not be patronizing a retail store in downtown Wolfville.”

Hovell says roughly 60 per cent of their customers are from Nova Scotia, and he says the company will be relying on those same people to plan a “staycation” this year and explore their own backyard.

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“If we’re able to salvage some sort of season this tourism year, it’s going to depend on our neighbours close to us,” he says.

That said, what the season will look like is still uncertain. Hovell says they’re awaiting direction from the provincial government and Public Health on how to proceed.

“Today we’re just working through scenarios in our head, not knowing what the rules are going to be,” says Hovell.

“We remain hopeful that over the course of the next couple of weeks that some of that information will become much more clear to us, so then we can plan to ensure that our guests have that safe and comfortable journey with us for a day.”