PICTOU – For the past 22 years, Anne Emmett and her husband Mike have operated the Braeside Country Inn, a fixture for tourists who have visited Pictou. In that time, the pair has witnessed ups and downs, busy times and lulls in business.
“I remember our heyday of the 1990s,” said Anne. “We were booked solid from June to September.” Often, the inns and B&Bs would call around to make sure all the visitors had rooms since many would show up only to find no vacancy signs.
“Those days are gone.”
The Braeside, along with many businesses that used to operate full-tilt in the busy season, are now tending to rely on events such as the Pictou Lobster Carnival or graduation at St. FX for continued operation. And they can sometime be few and far between.
Pictou Mayor Joe Hawes, now in his third term, is equally anxious about the tourism industry’s precarious state. “It’s a sign of the times with the U.S. economy in a bad situation right now.
It will take three or four years before the economy turns and things get back to business.”
The mayor and business owners point to several events over the past decade that have resulted in what both Emmett and Hawes call a “gradual decline” in tourism to the area.
The 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the loss of the Yarmouth ferry to Maine, high gas prices and taxes in Nova Scotia, coupled with a strong Canadian dollar have affected Pictou’s American markets.
Emmett said the travel culture between Canada and the U.S. travel has historically been based on expectations of travel ease. “(Americans) don’t feel they should have to get passports like we do in Canada.”
The province admits there are challenges ahead for a $2 billion industry that, according to the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, supports more than 24,000 jobs for Nova Scotians.
In a presentation at the Rodd Grand Hotel in Yarmouth, Grant MacDonald, from the newly launched Nova Scotia Tourism Agency (NSTA), presented the long-term strategy and identified travellers, as opposed to tourists, as the target.
“The ideal target is the outdoor enthusiast, someone who is seeking outdoor activities. When they’re finished the activity they want a good culinary experience,” he said.
The goal is to set Nova Scotia apart from emerging markets by finding new opportunities and new reasons for people to select it as their destination.
“We are a province of slightly less than one million. We want to be attracting more than twice our population and in order to do that we need to work better together. We know we can’t continue to operate the way we’ve been operating,” said MacDonald.
In the province’s Long Term Strategy for Tourism, it notes that in the past 10 years, visits to Nova Scotia have declined by nine per cent. The document also says Nova Scotia faces a number of barriers to industry growth, including a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities, widely dispersed spending with little focus, aging product, outdated technology, and an unco-ordinated approach to major events.
These barriers, that are only now being discussed at the provincial level, are exactly what Emmett feels must be resolved. “It’s about marketing and selling the province. We as businesses don’t expect government handouts but a solid marketing strategy.”
Hawes, however, feels that government subsidies, as well as good promotion, are needed for the tourist industry since there isn’t another town-supporting industry in place. “Strong government subsidies would carry us through.”
He said the town’s revenue from residential taxes don’t allow for aid to the tourist destinations. Statistics Canada records Pictou’s population in 2011 at 3,437, down more than 20 per cent from 4,413 in 1986.
“We’re doing our best to keep the commercial tax rate down to retain businesses in the area.”
The Hector Quay and Ship Hector interpretive centre were closed in late 2010 due to the lack of funding by the town. The buildings and ship were subsequently purchased from the town by a group of local citizens in order to re-open the centre and win back some of the lost business.
“There’s nothing worse than seeing a business close, especially something like Pictou Lodge,” said Emmett. The storied lodge went into voluntary receivership due to a lack of operating funds.
However, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel as the lodge has received a record number of bookings for weddings and other events. That’s if it can find new owners in time for the busy season.
Even for Emmett at the Braeside Inn, bookings are up a bit from this point last year.
“I strongly believe there’s hope for Nova Scotia and continue to believe it’s the best province in the country,” she said. “But we’ve got to stop this doom and gloom and start working together to move forward.”