SYDNEY — Every year seems to have a special attraction and the summer of 2013 won’t be any different.
This year, the tourism spotlight will shine on Louisbourg with the 18th-century fortress town celebrating its 300th anniversary. And don’t expect just a cake and best wishes — Louisbourg is going all out with plenty of special events every month until the end of the year.
Still, despite Louisbourg’s plethora of parties, there are people who might even dispute its claim on having the premiere event of the summer. After all, there’s also the Gaelic College’s 75th anniversary, the launch of Race the Cape, the third year of the Right Some Good culinary festival, the 40th anniversary of Action Week, bringing the Silver Dart replica to the Bell Museum in Baddeck, and the first PGA Canada event ever to be held in Atlantic Canada at The Lakes Golf Club.
And that’s not counting the annual festivals, fêtes and events held in every town and village, or those things you only do in the summer, such as swim at the island’s beaches or golf.
“There is so much going on,” said Destination Cape Breton executive director Mary Tulle, laughing. “I’ve got more people coming to sleep on my floors than I can shake a stick at.”
Tulle is confident that all the events should lead to further visits to the island, and if website interest is any indicator, she could be right.
“P.E.I. tourism just released their stats that their website visits are up six per cent,” said Tulle. “We’re up over 60 per cent. Cape Breton Island is up over 60 per cent in solid inquiries, with increased length of stay and declining bounce rates. Those are things we look very strongly on.”
Much of the interest this year is focused on events taking place at Fortress Louisbourg and that’s something visitor experience manager Lester Marchand hopes will have long-term effects.
“The kinds of programs and products that we put together with our partners for this year's celebrations, these are all programs and partners that we'll be doing in 2014 in different ways,” said Marchand. “So we're using this year to launch Louisbourg in a new light. And in so doing, launch Cape Breton in a new light, Nova Scotia in a new light, so on and so forth.”
It’s all part of an overall goal to get people to visit for the first time and to keep visiting. While no one would give specific figures on how many people are expected this summer, a look at past years may put the statistics into further context. According to Nova Scotia Tourism indicators, in 2012, Cape Breton had a 40 per cent occupancy rate for the year, with July, August and September offering 54, 67 and 48 per cent occupancy rates respectively. These occupancy rates also include those busy times when no rooms were readily available.
In comparison, Halifax Metro had a 60 per cent occupancy rate (69, 74, 79 per cent in July, August and September respectively) while the province had a 48 per cent occupancy rate (58, 65 and 59 per cent in July, August and September). Northumberland Shore had a 41 per cent occupancy rate with 51, 58 and 55 per cent in July, August and September.
In 2011, Cape Breton had a 42 per cent occupancy rate for the year, with July, August and September offering 63, 63 and 52 per cent occupancy rates. Halifax had a 59 per cent occupancy rate for the year, with July, August and September offering 67, 70 and 77 per cent occupancy rates, while the province had a 48 per cent occupancy rate for the year, with July, August and September offering 59, 60 and 60 per cent occupancy rates. Northumberland Shore had a 44 per cent occupancy rate, with 57, 55 and 57 per cent in July, August and September.
In May, Economic and Rural Development and Tourism Minister Graham Steele released the province’s five-year strategy for tourism, with the department focusing its marketing efforts on first-time visitors, since their numbers have been declining.
First-time visitors spend 42 per cent more and travel farther throughout the province, but make up only 19 per cent of the two million annual visitors. Tulle would also like to see more of those visitors head north to the Cape, and her organization maintains a booth on the Halifax waterfront to ensure they are persuaded to come here.
“When we talk to operators, they’re feeling good, they’re looking at a good year,” said Tulle, who says she feels that after years of solid work, the pieces are finally falling into place. “So anything that we have right now as performance indicators, we’re feeling good because it’s our operators who are telling us more so from our side. We’re seeing it in our visitation.”
One of those operators is Scott MacAulay, the general manager of Cape Breton Resorts, which looks after the Inverary, Glenghorm and Dundee resorts, as well as the Bell Bay Golf Course. He says he’s looking forward to a great year and believes the action-packed summer schedule could help.
“If we get some nice weather, which gives people a better experience, it should be a good season,” MacAulay said, adding that for visitors from other parts of Atlantic Canada, weather really does make a difference.
“I don’t know if the season is getting later or if we expect the spring to be better and better every year. We’ve become a little more dependent on the regional market. And the regional market is able to watch (meteorologist) Peter Coade and see what he’s predicting for the weekend. And they’re making their decision that close to departure.
“That’s why I think weather has a lot to do with what the season is going to turn out to be. If people are going to spend their hard-earned dollars, they want to make sure it’s going to be nice weather.”
Lyne Larade of Maison Fiset House in Cheticamp also believes the weather has a big role to play in the upcoming season.
“From what I can see from my pre-reservations, July, August and September will be very good,” she said.
“I think our tourism season is experiencing a change in time because of the weather. The weather’s not that great in June. I think people are changing their travel habits to come in July, August, September and October. October reservations don’t start coming until August and September, so it’s hard to judge October now. People in October tend to drive in and reserve off the street.”
And when they get here, Larade will be doing her best to encourage them to stay longer.
“Some people think they come to Cape Breton and see it in one day, and you can’t do that and basically see everything,” said Larade. “There’s so many things to discover. We have everything on Cape Breton. We have the water, we have the mountains, we have everything. If we could just promote it and get people from everywhere to know about it, I think we would be a bigger destination for sure.”