Hospitality NL chair says ease of access to province essential to industry growth
As the month of March dragged on, Monty Mitchell could tell the likelihood of his planned July trip to Newfoundland and Labrador was not going to pan out.
It was a trip he booked in late January as part of a group of 13 from Ontario, all of whom would be making their first visit to the island. But with COVID-19 looming large over every aspect of life, he sensed a summer trip would not be feasible.
"I was travelling with a group, so we were calling back tour operators and lodging operators, and each one of them was of course saying, 'Well, we understand completely, and no problem with cancelling,' which was great," the London resident told The Telegram. "It's a little bit different from most places, where they might potentially want to give you a service charge."
Each operator also expressed hope the travellers would come back in 2021. As it stands now, the prospects of that happening do not look strong.
Any traveller who booked flights with Air Canada on March 1, 2020 or any date thereafter can cancel those bookings and receive full credit without having to pay a cancellation fee. They can then use that credit toward any future trips within the next 24 months.
However, because Mitchell's flight was booked in January, he is in a different boat. If he cancels the bookings, his window to use his credit for future travels only goes up to April 30, 2021 (if the airliner cancels the flights in July, he would get the 24-month window). He is not keen on a spring visit to the island.
"Unfortunately, as it stands right now, myself and my travel group, we'll most likely take advantage of those tickets to fly down south," he said. "That's kind of unfortunate for Canada and unfortunate for Newfoundland."
Mitchell does not foresee there being a reason for the airliner to cancel the July flights. In late March, a spokeswoman for the St. John's International Airport Authority told The Telegram airline schedules were reduced by at least 50 per cent and would likely decrease further as more people returned to the province and as demand for flights continued to decline. Mitchell is for now holding on to his flight bookings in case the airliner does decide to cancel the flights.
"I have an opportunity to wait right up until the middle of July," he said.
Steve Denty, chair of Hospitality NL and general manager of the Murray Premises Hotel in St. John's, told The Telegram transportation to the island is a top advocacy issue for the tourism industry.
"The common phrase we use all the time here in Newfoundland and Labrador is that we don't receive any accidental tourists," he said. "It takes a very concerted effort to plan and want to visit this destination, whether it's by air or sea. Planning and ease of access is extremely important to us."
Denty said it would be their hope that a partner with hospitality and tourism industries such as an airline company would be flexible enough to accommodate travellers who want to visit the province next summer.
"This isn't a person who is trying to game the system or come out on top or use any cancellation policy to their advantage," he said. "We just want to give them the opportunity to have that same experience that they've planned, and plan for another year. Otherwise, essentially some of these businesses could be hit twice. Once in 2020, which we understand, but to penalize destinations in the future if there's no flexibility is certainly concerning."
In a statement released to The Telegram, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation said it's willing to share feedback from prospective tourists with the airline industry.
"The tourism industry faces an exceptional challenge during this COVID-19 pandemic," the statement said. "We thank the Ontario residents who planned to travel here this summer for their interest.
“Globally, airlines also face a significant challenge, and we must recognize that companies have shown great flexibility in extending policies, some as far out as 24 months. Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism will continue to work with our partners in the air industry and will consistently raise feedback received from potential travellers."
In the meantime, Mitchell said if he cannot make it in 2020 or 2021, he'll likely have to wait years before trying to arrange another trip to the island.
"We're seniors and we still have our health care, and we feel generally safer about coming to Newfoundland and remaining in Canada, rather than flying abroad next year with all the unknowns," he said. "But the Air Canada policy is more or less going to encourage us to go someplace south."