Visitor numbers to Nelson and area continue to remain depressed by more than one third from pre-pandemic figures, the city’s visitor centre manager says.
Tom Thomson said the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce Visitor Centre served 14,104 people at the CP Station location in 2021 — down from the high of 22,491 visits in 2019.
“It’s been a long, strange and tumultuous second year for the tourism industry in Nelson and area,” he said.
In the past year, just when people thought there was some progress being made with COVID-19 and bending the pandemic curve, more and more restrictions were brought in. Travel restrictions were instituted, face masks returned in public areas and new public health orders were created throughout all of B.C., Thomson told city council recently in his annual visitor centre report.
Businesses and communities all around the world have really struggled for the past 23 months to stay solvent and keep their communities safe and Nelson was no different, Thomson explained.
“It was fairly impactful for the tourism sector, and the arts and culture sector as well,” he said about the pandemic effect. “Tourism is very important to our community. It is not the only driver of the economy, but it is a very important one.”
During the last two years there has been a slow ascent into challenges and the Nelson business community never really got free of them, Thomson said.
“We had some peaks, some valleys, but we never really got out of the COVID-related issues,” he said. “And that’s unfortunate because more and more people didn’t get to come to this area because of the restrictions, whether they were travel restrictions or border restrictions, it just made it much more challenging.”
The vibrant international contingent of visitors the Heritage City once enjoyed has largely disappeared, with only one per cent of out-of-country visitors making up the total demographic.
Regional visitors provided the majority of tourists to Nelson at 68 per cent, with other B.C. residents at 22 per cent, Albertans made up six per cent of the visits and other Canadian visitors comprised three per cent (total of 99 per cent) of the total of visitors to Nelson.
Through it all the visitor centre staff had to stay current and on top of the ever-changing situations, be it wildfire, floods, COVID-19, what the latest protocols were and what businesses were open, said the visitor centre’s Val Yowek.
“People were afraid to come to the area. Visitors were also concerned if they would be welcome to our area, they were concerned that ‘would you welcome us if we were from Alberta?’” she related.
The drop in visitors reflected a reduction in business, Thomson noted, with 70 per cent of business owners pegging COVID-19 as the reason for the decline, with less tourists (60 per cent) a close second.
On the other hand
While there were some “near normal” visitor months during 2021, visitor centre staff spent a substantial amount of time providing business assistance supports, Thomson explained.
“The Visitor Centre and Chamber staff pivoted to business support and business outreach, directing businesses to government business assistance programs and providing an empathetic ear for support,” he said. “We were all in this together.”
That support took the form of Chamber business recovery advisor Darren Davidson, who conducted business outreach with businesses in Nelson, informing businesses about available financial supports and services.
The Chamber also provided information about wildfire preparation and the B.C. Vaccine Card, Thomson said, along with answering thousands of requests for information (via telephone, email and social media) — a number that moved even higher during the problematic times.
“The visitor centre staff does a tremendous job of creating a remarkable experience for first time visitors,” he pointed out. “The lifetime value of a highly satisfied visitor is often years of return visits, increased expenditures, increased length of stay and better word of mouth.”
He called the visitor centre a marketing centre since it helped increase awareness of local businesses, shops and services, local and regional amenities, attractions as well as provincial products.
“We stimulate longer stays, maximizing economic benefits to Nelson and area,” Thomson said.