Some tourism stakeholders concerned by N.B. premier’s comments on vaccines, travel restrictions

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Tourism stakeholders in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are concerned by the New Brunswick premier’s suggestion that at least 70 per cent of residents in the Maritime province should be vaccinated before travel restrictions are dropped.

In a year-end interview with Global News, Blaine Higgs said self-isolation requirements for those entering New Brunswick will depend on vaccine rollout, but he’s “looking for a 70 per cent ratio” prior to making changes, particularly for those travelling from outside the Atlantic region.

“Once we understand the rollout and the availability of vaccines, then we can predict when the borders will reopen,” Higgs said in the interview aired Dec. 31.

“So we get to that 70-per cent level and other provinces are in the same vein, then that should allow us to get back to the Atlantic bubble for sure…but right now, we have to maintain the status quo.”

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The premier said he hopes to reopen the Atlantic bubble “long before” 70 per cent of New Brunswickers receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently being distributed to front-line health care workers, long-term care residents and seniors across the country.

READ MORE: N.B. targeting 70 per cent vaccination rate before opening borders to rest of Canada

That ratio, however, would be a benchmark for a possible reopening to Quebec, Ontario and other provinces, Higgs explained.

Carol Alderdice, president of the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick (TIANB), said the approach is a “little scary” for the sector, which has lost millions during the months-long novel coronavirus pandemic.

A 70-per cent vaccination rate for all New Brunswickers would not likely be possible until mid-summer at the earliest, as public health officials indicate that vaccination outside priority groups is unlikely to begin before the spring.

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Alderdice said tourism associations and stakeholders across the country are working together on strategies for the 2021 season and may lobby provincial governments to allow restriction-free travel for anyone with proof they’ve received the vaccine, as an alternative to the ratio-based approached suggested by Higgs.

“I mean, it makes sense, if they’re vaccinated they should be safe to travel because waiting for 70 per cent — that can be a long time from now, and I don’t know that the industry can survive another summer of not really having any visitors from Ontario, Quebec and internationally.”

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According to TIANB, in 2019, tourism brought $1.6 billion and more than 30,000 jobs to the New Brunswick economy. In the same year, government statistics say in Nova Scotia, the sector brought in nearly $2.7 billion and 50,000 jobs.

In 2020, tourism was expected to generate just $900 million in Nova Scotia as a result of the pandemic.

“I don’t know that we can continue in this direction for extended periods of time,” said David Clark, an executive member of the Hotel Association of Nova Scotia and general manager of the Atlantica Hotel in Halifax.

“I think the governments have done a great job getting us to this point. At this time, I think we need to start looking at other ways to start looking at the economy; restricting travel for year is not going to work for many businesses.”

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Clark also called the possibility of a ratio-based formula for dropping travel restrictions “a little scary.”

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil was unavailable Monday for an interview on whether he might follow in New Brunswick’s footsteps, and his press secretary declined to answer written questions, deferring to a statement from the Health and Wellness Department.

“There are a number of factors to consider when determining when and how travel restrictions will be eased including the levels of COVID activity locally and elsewhere, the evolving evidence on long-term immunity from COVID vaccines, and the benefits/impacts of ongoing restrictions,” wrote department spokesperson Marla MacInnis.

“While vaccinating Nova Scotians is a positive step, Public Health protocols will be in place for the foreseeable future.”

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The Health Department did not directly address questions about the possibility of a ratio-based approach in Nova Scotia.

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Meanwhile, Clark said two hotels have already closed their doors in the Halifax area, and it’s possible one of the closures will be permanent. Any travel restrictions, he added, would also impact business travellers — another key source of income for the hotel industry.

The federal, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with financial supports for the tourism sector, such as an expense rebate for N.B. “staycationers,” property tax relief for N.S. hotel owners, and a variety of grants, low-interest loans, wage subsidies and rate assistance programs.

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