Vancouver Island tourism reopening plagued by labour shortages

The clickity-clack of horse hooves is a sound that hasn't been heard much in downtown Victoria in the past year and a half, until this past weekend. But now that many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted and Canada-wide travel is encouraged, Tom Walker with Victoria Carriage tours says business has picked up.

It was still only about 25 per cent as busy over the Canada Day long weekend as it was pre-pandemic, but that’s an improvement over last summer, according to the operator.

 "Now that they've lifted the restrictions, people really do want to come out and start spending their money," said Walker on Tuesday.

Whale watching was also relatively busy over the long weekend – more active, in fact, than any other weekend during the pandemic.

Still, Ian MacPhee with Prince of Whales Whale Watching says it was less than half as busy as pre-COVID times because there aren't international tourists who are vital to their customer base.

"Well, we'll never get back to pre-pandemic levels until the taps are fully opened, and the water gushes out – and that’s coming across the borders," said MacPhee.

Big hotels in the capital also faired relatively well over the weekend, with occupancy rates of approximately 75 per cent in Victoria. But again, international tourists are badly needed, said Paul Nursey, head of Destination Greater Victoria.

"Business is roughly twice as good as it was last year, but down roughly 40 per cent compared to a normalized year," said Nursey.

Meanwhile, in smaller resort towns like Tofino, hotels, beaches and restaurants were packed.

"As busy as any summer weekend ever, I would say," said Charles McDiarmid with the Wickaninnish Inn.

"Our numbers for brunch at the Point restaurant were the second busiest numbers we've ever had," he said.

HELP WANTED

While Tofino was decidedly more busy than Victoria, there was one constant everywhere — a shortage of staff at tourism businesses to meet growing demand.

"Now we have all the visitors we could possibly have and we're looking for some great people to help take care of them," said McDiarmid.

The situation was similar in Victoria.

"Labour shortages continue to plague the hospitality industry. People have left the industry seeing what's gone on," said MacPhee.

Walker says his horse carriage business has struggled to retain some of its employees during the pandemic.

"Bringing back some of our old employees didn't work out very well," said Walker, noting the challenges faced by an industry with hours that were severely reduced over the past 16 months.

The business would be able to put one more carriage on the streets if it had more employees, and on Tuesday it was training a new staff member — hoping to be able to harness the increasing demand created by more tourists descending on Victoria.