Rough road to recovery for N.B. duty-free shop – still holding out hope border traffic will increase

John Slipp says it’s like the perfect storm. Just as the pandemic is shifting and restrictions easing, the high price of fuel, supply chain issues and lingering requirements at the U.S.-Canada border are all adding pressure to his already beat-up bottom line.

The owner of the Woodstock duty-free shop and Atlantic Travel Centre says the month of May normally sees more campers and road trippers taking advantage of the warmer weather. He had built up his inventory in anticipation.

Instead, he says, traffic has been slow.

“I was talking to a supplier yesterday who said everybody is experiencing the same thing. We can only assume it’s the price of fuel but it’s hard to be sure,” Slipp said. “And the supply chain challenges affect us just like they’re affecting everyone else… Could the business environment be more difficult? It’s hard to imagine.”

He also wonders if the federal government’s “ArriveCan” app is holding travellers back. The app is used for any travellers entering Canada to upload their proof of vaccination documentation. The Canadian Border Services Agency has repeated that – no matter their vaccine status – travellers must use the app to return to Canada.

“We believe this is a factor in our challenges with slow traffic,” he said. “What is the benefit? …How is having people registering on ArriveCan actually benefiting Canadians? And nobody’s been able to answer that question.”

Visitors from central Canada and the eastern U.S. make up a sizeable portion of the tourism market in N.B.

But while there’s concern gas prices may hold some back – the Tourism Industry Association of N.B. also believes it will encourage more to explore closer to home.

“Talking to some different operators, they're starting to see visitors from away. Maybe not to the degree they have in the past, the gas prices may be limiting that a little bit, but people are still looking to travel,” said Andrew McNair, association CEO.

“If they're losing some of that it's being picked up by people closer. Bookings are full, operators are telling us that bookings are filled up and that people are ready to move and do things, so if we lose a little bit of business from further away it's going to get picked up by those closer.”

Many tourism operators are counting on the upcoming summer to help with recovery after the last two years.

According to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, almost 85 per cent of businesses in the tourism sector experienced a decrease in revenue the first year of the pandemic – and for almost half, that decrease was 40 per cent of more.