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COVID-19: Saskatchewan tourism hoping for near-normal summer as restrictions set to lift


“We’re very, very excited,” Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote said, “just like everybody else who’s in hospitality.”

Stefanyshyn-Cote co-owns Black Fox Farm and Distillery, outside of Saskatoon.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown took a toll on her business, she said. She said last summer wasn’t too bad, but fewer customers came to the distillery in the winter, partially because public health restrictions limit the number of people allowed inside at once.

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She said she’s hoping the summer of 2021 is much better than that of 2020.

The Government of Saskatchewan has tentatively scheduled restrictions to be lifted and Stefanyshyn-Cote told Global News she’s hoping a regular number of customers visit this year — or even more.

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“We’d love to see a double increase; we’d be happy with a 50-per cent increase,” she said. “We’ll take whatever we can get.”

Landscapers were preparing the grounds and distillery staff were checking on the gin, vodka and whisky during the interview. Stefanyshyn-Cote said staff would undertake further preparations in the coming week.

She was optimistic for the coming months, saying it seemed as though the province was through the worst of the pandemic and that the vaccines had curbed the spread.

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Jim Bence, president and CEO of Hospitality Saskatchewan, which represents owners of businesses that rely on tourism, said the previous year had been “devastating.”

He said many are hoping that the province’s vaccination rate encourages travel from within and outside the province.

“Some of the things that travellers may have identified about Saskatchewan in the past, as being almost a negative — we’re flat, we’re wide open, we’re all those other things — are now, we know from sentiment surveys, exactly what travellers are looking for,” he told Global News, saying the wide, open spaces will allow visitors to stay physically distant.

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He said he welcomed any measure that opens up the province and encourages other Canadians to visit, including vaccine passports.

“If [it] gets travellers out quicker, safer, faster, we’re all for it,” he said.

He touted the province’s reopening plan, saying business owners he’s spoken with who cater to both corporate- and leisure-focused travellers were optimistic.

The Saskatchewan government previously announced it could lift most, if not all, pandemic restrictions as early as July 11.

Bence said the industry needs a big summer with lots of tourism.

“We have to have it… we’ve got to get the consumer confidence where people feel like they want to travel.”

The provincial tourism minister said he wanted the country to open even further.

“[The Saskatchewan Party] believes that that fully-vaccinated travellers should be able to travel across the border, whether they be Canadian or American or those from other parts of the world,” Jeremy Harrison told Global News.

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He said he’ll be speaking with his counterparts in the federal government early next week for further discussions on opening the border to fully-vaccinated Americans.

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When asked if the provincial government was prepared to offer support to business owners once again if customers didn’t return, he said the province is planning on “a complete reopen by mid-July here and that the province” and was undertaking campaigns to promote tourism.

Jonathan Potts, a Tourism Saskatchewan spokesperson, said the campaign to promote travel within Saskatchewan began last Monday and the campaign promoting the province across Canada would begin soon — depending on the target province’s current COVID case count.

Stefanyshyn-Cote said she’ll welcome fully-vaccinated visitors from across the province, country and outside of Canada once travel is permitted.

She estimated up to 30 per cent of her customers are foreign — usually a guest visiting a friend — and said she believes most people think Saskatchewan is a flyover province.

Bringing in more people this summer, she suggested, will help offset a winter spent in lockdown.

“I think if we can get that message out, that’s where we’ll see an advantage,” she said.

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