Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Statistics Canada’s New Tourism Data Isn’t Great for NS, or the Ferry

Statistics Canada released new data this month about how visitors arrived in Canada, and it reminds us that as the tourism season winds down and the Yarmouth Ferry operations near a season end it’s time to seek answers to the unanswered questions, many of which probably should have been answered before the season began.
We’ve heard from government that visitor numbers to Nova Scotia are up, and room nights are doing better. This may be true. But new Statistics Canada data reinforces that those visits are not coming from the Yarmouth Ferry.

This is not about whether the Yarmouth Ferry should or should not be funded. As I said in a blog a few months ago (which you can read here) the ferry is a political decision with arguments for and against. You either believe it should be funded on a largely open ended basis or you don’t. I highly doubt people will change their minds on that.

Based on Bay Ferries’ own numbers, it appears possible that the contribution taxpayers will make to the ferry this year will be higher than anticipated because of lower than expected passenger numbers and a contract which appears to make taxpayers responsible for most of the costs associated with fewer passengers.

Tourism landings did trend up in July by 5.8 percent. Year over year however, Statistics Canada says people arriving directly in the province from elsewhere is basically flat. Nonetheless, room nights from external sources are what matter to most operators, and Tourism Nova Scotia issued a release saying that

“Tourism businesses benefited from a seven per cent increase in non-resident overnight visitors (up 23,000) this July compared to last, bringing year-to-date visitation totals to about 1,155,100 visitors, an increase of eight per cent compared with the same period in 2015.”

It’s difficult to compare visitors and room nights (which Tourism Nova Scotia counts, and for which how they are counted changed a few years ago) and what Statistics Canada counts, which is visitors based on their province of entry.

The Statistics Canada data is important when considering the impact of the ferry and airports. Their data looks at how people get to Nova Scotia which is directly related to the ferry’s success (or not) in bringing people to the province. It’s data which shows that automobile visits from the United States are down, both year over year, and in July. Down by a lot.

Statistics Canada data shows that while visitor numbers in July were up by 5.8 percent in Nova Scotia (a good thing) visits from the United States by automobile were actually down a whopping 17.7 percent. Visitors from the United States are up in July according to the data, but the same data shows those people are not coming on the ferry. Before someone asks, I wondered whether those arriving by car on a ferry would be considered non-automobile arrivals by Statistics Canada. They are not. Non-automobile overnight visitors are almost all travel by air. That means visitors from the United States were up in July but they flew, possibly impacted by the new cost competitive Westjet flight from Boston.

It gets worse. In the year to date numbers automobile visits are down by 28.8 percent. Travel from other countries is also down year over year by 6.1 percent.

The totals? For the first half of 2016 non-resident entries to Nova Scotia are down by one percent (basically flat). Yes, people may be arriving through New Brunswick, or Quebec, or fewer people may be buying more rooms. All fine things. Except for what it means for the ferry. The data shows people are choosing other ways to get to Nova Scotia. (Keep in mind here too that Bay Ferries reports passenger loads but it doesn’t break out Nova Scotia resident passengers and others, while Statistics Canada is looking at arrivals by non-residents)

Despite the clear data (using both Bay Ferries data and Statistics Canada data) showing the ferry service has lower numbers than last year, this hasn’t stopped the industry from saying visitation has been heightened by the ferry. I stumbled upon an article where Neil MacKenzie, general manager of the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association (YASTA) seems to suggest this when he says:

“Two-thirds of the people we have spoke to are intending to go to other areas of Nova Scotia,” said MacKenzie. “They are exploring the whole province so it (the ferry) doesn’t just benefit Yarmouth and Acadian Shores, its benefiting the whole province.”

I am happy that Yarmouth and Acadian shore tourism operators are seeing a growth in business. But given the numbers on the ferry are down, its impossible for this growth to be coming from the ferry.What it actually suggests is despite a decline in ferry visitors, marketing efforts by the region are working and drawing people who arrive by air or via New Brunswick.

The ferry has a lot of issues. I considered taking it on two trips to the US earlier this year. On one trip the ferry simply hadn’t started yet. On the second, the cost would have been significantly higher, and the travel time longer, than driving via New Brunswick. I have heard similar stories from many people who would have gone but for the cost and time (time would depend on your destination and your origin). A lower cost however would probably mean a higher subsidy

The government, and particularly the minister and premier, have a responsibility to tell Nova Scotians how they will define success for the ferry project, and what (if any) limits there will be on financial and other support. It’s a basic question. If success to the government is just having a ferry, regardless of cost or passenger load, then so be it, they should say so. With that answer voters can decide for themselves whether they believe it is worth it. It will also force opposition parties to have a clear position on whether they agree with the government or not, and if not, what limits they would put on support for the ferry.