Who opens a new tourist attraction during a pandemic? Meet Canada’s most-optimistic entrepreneurs

Canadians desperate for new holiday adventures this summer will soon have some fresh options. 

It could seem surprising, given the surge in COVID-19 cases, but a number of tourist attractions across the country are getting ready to open their doors for the first time in 2021. 

For example, the District Wine Village is set to open in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley in June. The $25-million development will offer visitors food, live music, and a selection of wines from 16 different small, artisanal producers.

In Nova Scotia, new owners of the Cape Smokey ski hill are completing the first stage of a $100 million revamp, to create an all-season resort. The new gondola is set to open July 1, giving guests what’s described as “gorgeous and unbelievable” views of the Cabot Trail.  

And in downtown Toronto, a unique attraction called “Little Canada” will soon be selling tickets to see a miniature version of the country.  

WATCH | Miniature version of Canada to open in Toronto:

A tourist attraction involving scaled-down models of Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe area and Quebec will be ready this summer. 1:07

“The country’s too big to build all at once, even in miniature,” said general manager John Phillipson. “So we were opening with five destinations.” Scaled-down models of Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe area and Quebec will be ready this summer, with more to come in future. 

Tricky timing

But what are these operators thinking? Surely a global pandemic is the worst possible time to launch a tourist attraction. Lockdowns are keeping international travellers away, and revenue from domestic visitors is reduced by coronavirus capacity regulations.

Beth Potter, CEO of the Canadian Tourism Association, said the industry’s revenue is down 35 per cent overall, and 500,000 jobs have been lost. 

John Phillipson, general manager of Little Canada, stands near one of the displays at the new tourist destination set to open in Toronto this summer. (Little Canada)

As chief spokesperson for the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses, a group made up of close to 6,000 companies active in the hotel, tourism, arts, culture and hospitality industries, Potter said as many as 60 per cent of members won’t survive unless government support programs are extended in the upcoming federal budget.

“Even though there’s no revenue coming in, their fixed costs have continued,” she said. “So they’re still having to pay down their debt, pay a mortgage or rent, and of course, any of the other costs that are associated with running their business.”

WATCH | N.S. ski hill morphs into all-season resort:

The new owners of Cape Smokey are building a gondola set to open this summer with ‘gorgeous’ views of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. 0:50

Despite that bleak scenario, the entrepreneurs behind Canada’s newest attractions say they have no choice but to plunge ahead — their projects were started prior to the pandemic, and it doesn’t make business sense to hit the pause button.

Projects can’t wait

Martin Kejval, CEO of Cape Smokey Holding, said that the resources and energy that have to be marshalled to build major attractions can’t necessarily be put on hold.

“If you are not optimistic and you don’t go for it, even in these tough times, you will emerge after five years and you will have nothing,” he said. “The situation might be different, and your passion and the resources may not be there.”

Kejval said an analysis of traffic volume on the Cabot Trail last summer showed that there were only 20 per cent fewer vehicles than usual. And with the Atlantic Bubble set to re-open in May, he is hopeful more visitors will be exploring the area this summer.  

Will local tourism alone be enough to support the venture through 2021? “To be honest, just barely,” he said.

But Kejval, who competed internationally for the Czech Republic as a downhill skier before settling in Canada, said that the European investor group behind the development is looking years into the future — beyond the pandemic’s impact — for its profit.  

A rendering of the new District Wine Village in central B.C. A central amphitheatre is surrounded by 16 different buildings, which will house small, artisanal wine makers. (Greyback Construction)

Hiring for the summer will begin soon, with 70 positions to be filled for the coming season. “We will be eventually employing just shy of 500 people,” Kejval added. 

Pent-up demand for travel

At the District Wine Village in the Okanagan, Matt Kenyon is also optimistic.

“There’s clearly lots of pent-up demand to do things, especially something that’s safe and outdoors,” said Kenyon, whose family business, Greyback Construction, is the major investor in the District Wine Village. 

WATCH | A new wine destination in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley:

‘There’s clearly lots of pent-up demand to do things, especially something that’s safe and outdoors,’ investor says of the $25-million development. 1:01

He said the 10-acre site is set up with large patios for outdoor tastings, and a huge amphitheatre at the centre for live music. “There are outdoor seating areas,” he said. “There’s just a really good vibe when you enter into the Wine Village.”

Kenyon admits the entire endeavour has been “nerve-wracking,” considering that he and his partners broke ground on the project in February of 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown. But he said he feels confident about what’s ahead because other, established wineries in the Okanagan did quite well last summer, despite the pandemic. 

“Many of the tasting rooms were busy enough last year in the valley, so we’re comfortable that it’ll be another busy season,” he said. “It’s our hope the vaccines keep rolling out quickly so that that comfort level comes sooner than later, and that we are safe and people can have some fun.”

A rendering of the Tree Walk that is scheduled to be built by 2022 at the Cape Smokey resort on Cape Breton Island. An elevated footpath will allow visitors to walk through the tree canopy. A seven-story lookout tower is also in the works. (Cape Smokey Holding)

At the Little Canada attraction in Toronto, John Phillipson is also counting on the vaccination program to ease the way forward.  

“We see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “The tunnel is a lot longer than we thought it was, but we know the light is there and we will get there.”

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