Original Published on Jul 06, 2022 at 06:24

By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

While the province has projected the number of visitors on the Island  this year to reach just 0.4 million shy of 2019’s 1.6 million, many  local tourism operators say they are experiencing their best season to  date and are hopeful to top 2019.

“It’s going to be a bumper  season,” said Leslie Blake owner of Ocean Acres cottages on the Fox  River Road in Murray Harbour. “Everyone is sick and tired and wants to  get out for a vacation – they are coming hell or high water.”

If  May and June trends continue and her bookings follow through, Ms Blake  says she will have the busiest season since opening seven years ago.  Most of her visitors are from Ontario and Quebec this season and some  from the US and Europe.

She has noticed fewer travellers from Nova  Scotia this year and suspects this could be the result of high gas  prices and increased ferry fees but she says it’s hard to really say.

Ocean Acres also offers meals on-site in the Deck and Ms Blake saw restaurant traffic plummet after Mother’s Day weekend.

“There was a point where the foot just came off the gas.”

The  bulk of her restaurant clientele are locals and Ms Blake gets the sense  the highest inflation rates in the country are causing locals to stop  spending on extras such as eating out.

Another issue Ms Blake perpetually runs into is staffing in eastern PEI.

“If  someone applies to work, I hire them,” she said. “I never know if I’ll  get another application.” With an aging demographic in the Murray  River-Murray Harbour area she says she doesn’t see this trend changing  anytime soon.

Marcia Carroll, executive director of the Island East Tourism Group, says operators generally predict a great season.

However,  staffing in rural areas as well as transportation issues are challenges  which if surpassed could lead to an even stronger industry.

The  Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce completed an extensive labour market  survey in eastern and western PEI last year and identified some issues  and has since helped businesses with training to help them attract  employees.

But there is still work to be done, said Lori MacGregor, the chamber’s executive director.

The  chamber is working to host a conference specifically about human  resources issues in eastern PEI in September to work on finding more  solutions.

Ms MacGregor recognizes that staffing issues hold back  businesses’ operating capacity. Some restaurants have to close one day a  week due to staffing shortages and others close earlier in the season  than preferred since they rely on student staff.

Ms Carroll says  there is a shortage of rental vehicles inhibiting people from making  their way to the east end of the Island. This is coupled with high gas  prices and uncertain and reduced flights with recent Air Canada changes.  All of these can affect travel plans and hold the industry back.

Despite  challenges, in June the Information Centre in St Peter’s Bay saw  between 100 and 200 visitors a day, beating expectations based on a  pre-pandemic season where 60-100 visitors would be normal in June.

Just  before pedalling off with a group of cyclists in Kings County, Cynthia  King, owner and operator of PEI Cycling Tours & Adventures, said she  is by far having her best season since opening her business in 2018.

Based  on bookings and demand, Ms King has hired three more staff members for  the season and is seeing tourists from across Canada and the US flocking  to the Island to join her adventures.

“I think you’ll find that,  no matter who you call,” Ms King said. “Tourism has majorly improved  since last year and might be even better than in 2019.”

Kim  Ahlering, who owns ShantyStay Accommodations in Souris, is similarly  hopeful about the 2022 season. She offers 10 simple, sea shanty style  cabin accommodations with limited amenities. Through the pandemic the  bulk of her visitors were stopping by for some rest on their way from  Quebec to the Magdalen Islands.

“This year is different,” Ms  Ahlering said. She has welcomed bikers, people partaking in the Island  Walk and tourists from all over Canada and the US simply enjoying a  vacation. Her business was only open for a short season in 2019 before  the pandemic shut the Island down but she is expecting this to be her  most prosperous so far.

Kenneth Sanderson owns Outside Expeditions  in Brudenell which offers guided sea kayak tours among other Island  adventures in North Rustico as well. Based on May and June’s numbers he  is also expecting the company’s biggest year to date. He has provided  services to locals, Canadians and a number of tourists from the US and  Europe.

But Mr Sanderson said he too is finding staff to be an issue.

“We’re  waiting for the lobster season to end before we open there  (Brudenell),” he said a few days before local fishers landed their  traps. “It’s harder to find staff out east than in North Rustico, in the  Charlottetown area.”

CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Doug Newson  couldn’t provide exact figures for June as of the 30th. But he said he  tentatively expects the total arrivals to PEI by plane in June to be 90  per cent or more of the traffic arriving on the Island in June of 2019.  That would be a huge jump from 2020 or 21 when travel restrictions were  in place.

A representative from Northumberland Ferries Limited did  not provide traffic numbers on request but reported current passenger  traffic levels are similar to 2019.

May and June numbers showing traffic onto the Island over the Confederation Bridge were not available by press time.

Canada  Border Services data shows more than three times the number of  international travellers arriving into Atlantic Canada by land this June  compared to June 2020 and 2021 – but still less than half the number of  visitors who drove across the US-Canada border into the Maritimes three  years ago.

The Department of Tourism’s projection of 1.2 million  visitors on the Island for this year will be a significant jump from the  532,600 visitors seen in 2020.

This item reprinted with permission from The Eastern Graphic, Montague, Prince Edward Island