The provincial government’s decision to shut the doors of its visitor information centre in Aulac could mean tourists will miss out on some of southeast New Brunswick’s best “hidden gems.”
Nancy Oulton, who was the supervisor at Aulac’s familiar A-frame visitor information centre up until last week, said she is “disappointed and disheartened” by the decision by the PC government to close the tourist bureau as part of this year’s departmental budget cuts. She said it will mean job losses for five front-line staff members, ones who were well-versed in being able to provide that personal touch that more visitors seemed to be looking for.
“We went above and beyond to provide that personalized service,” said Oulton, who has worked in provincial tourism for 16 years, three in Aulac and 13 at the provincial VIC in Cape Jourimain before it was closed three years ago.
She said her staff had vast knowledge of the area and would often point their visitors “off the beaten path” to get to their destination, or to tell them of the best ice cream shops to check out. They also regularly helped guests make reservations at hotels or destinations provincewide.
Oulton said while there are a number of municipal tourist bureaus in municipalities throughout Southeastern New Brunswick, they simply don’t provide all of the same services that provincial centres do.
She said she was shocked when she was notified of the closure on Wednesday, saying although she knew budget cuts were coming, this news wasn’t what she was expecting.
“I knew that difficult decisions were going to have to be made,” said Oulton. “But I really felt we were going to stay open.”
She anticipated reduced staff hours or a cut in the number of weeks to the season but she didn’t see this decision coming at all. This leaves only three remaining provincial VICs - Campbellton, St. Jacques and St. Stephen - and none at all on the entire Eastern side of the province.
This means Nova Scotians or Islanders entering New Brunswick won’t have the option of popping into a provincial tourist bureau before they travel the province.
“To think of coming into New Brunswick and not having a welcome centre blows my mind,” she said.
Local MLA Megan Mitton agreed, stating on her Facebook page that the impact of this closure will be felt by the local businesses in the area and across the province.
“Memramcook-Tantramar is the gateway to New Brunswick from the other Maritime provinces and should be part of the provincial tourism strategy,” Mitton noted. “Why doesn’t this government want to welcome people into New Brunswick and avoid being the ‘drive-through’ province?”
Oulton said the Aulac VIC was as busy as some of the other centres that are still open so she is unsure as to why it was selected as the one to be closed.
Johanne LeBlanc, communications spokesperson for the New Brunswick department of tourism, heritage and culture, said travel habits have changed significantly over the last number of years and the availability of information online has impacted the use of the province’s five visitor information centres.
Oulton argued, however, that the Aulac VIC saw many seniors and out-of-country visitors who didn’t have smartphones or access to the internet. Over the past couple of years, she has also been noticing an increase in the number of vacationing families who are choosing to go “unplugged” for their holidays.
LeBlanc said the Woodstock Visitor Information Centre has seen a 28 per cent decrease in visitation since 2012. Less than 5,000 visitors per season were reported since 2014, 94 per cent lower than the numbers at the other VICs.
The Aulac VIC, however, tells a different story and has seen increased numbers over the past three years – last year’s visitation numbers topped over 13,800 compared to 2016’s total of 11,892.
But LeBlanc stated that, because the centre is located at an exit of the province, as opposed to a point of entry, most visitors stop in looking for information on Nova Scotia because they believe it is a Nova Scotia visitor information centre.
“This centre does not result in an increase in visits to New Brunswick and has minimal impact on increased length of stay in the province,” she said.
Blaine Higgs’ PC government made about $8 million in cuts last week to its tourism budget for 2019, which includes reductions in marketing programs and the closure of the two VICs.
“The department will continue to monitor all provincial visitor information centres to ensure the best use of resources and work on ways to ensure visitors have access to the information and resources they need during their stay,” said LeBlanc.
Sackville VIC preparing for potential increase in tourist traffic
While there will no longer be a provincial visitor information centre to welcome Nova Scotians and Islanders into the province, a 10-minute drive up the road will bring travelers to Sackville’s tourist bureau on Mallard Drive.
Ron Kelly Spurles, manager of tourism for the town, said with the closure of Aulac’s information centre, it’s certainly reasonable to assume the Sackville centre may get a bit busier this summer.
“We are hoping there will be an increase,” he said.
Kelly Spurles said there have been a fair number of people over the years who have stopped at Sackville’s tourist bureau thinking it was the provincial VIC, “so we’re pretty sure people will come to us when looking for those things.”
He said the town is currently looking at new ways to draw more people in, potentially involving some signage and further promotion of the VIC.
“We believe our staffing numbers will be adequate to handle any increase, but we'll monitor the situation through the summer.”
Sackville’s VIC is a spacious centre housing a craft gallery, a wetland interpretive display, wireless internet and computer stations, washrooms, and a picnic deck that make it a great stop for travelers. It also overlooks the Sackville Waterfowl Park, where visitors can enjoy a stroll.
Sackville’s tourist bureau is designated as an official municipal VIC by the province, which means staff are required to do an online training module with the province and the centre must also carry brochures and other materials provided by the province, said Kelly Spurles.
“So we will be well prepared to answer any questions or field any queries about the province.”