Less than a dozen people turned up, including the media and special guests, but organizers of the Southern Avalon Tourism Association's annual general meeting at the Celtic Rendezvous Cottages in Bauline East on Saturday say they still feel optimistic about the group’s future.
Colin Holloway, the Liberal member for Terra Nova district and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development, drove all the way from Port Blandford to deliver his remarks and represent the provincial government.
SATA president Bill Luby apologized a couple of times for the low turnout, joking there must have been a big sale at Costco, but the group was able to get through most of its agenda anyway aside from the election of officers and "sectoral" representatives.
Vice president Stan Cook, of Stan Cook Kayaking Adventures, said there are beautiful things happening on the Irish Loop. "We've got 24 people going out (in kayaks in Cape Broyle) this morning, and after they're finished there's another 24 going out," Cook said, offering a sample of the value tourism has for communities and businesses in the region.
"More people should be here today, because the Irish Loop is a very special area," Cook said, arguing tourism is growing in the region.
Luby, who has been involved with the group for some 24 years, said it all started for him when he was a guidance counsellor at Baltimore School in Ferryland. "I noticed that there were a number of students who were not exactly excelling in their studies, but still needed something to do, something to work at," he said. "The fishery (at the time) was gone. So even back then, in the '90s, I started suggesting that people get involved in this new and growing industry here called tourism. And many of them did and went on to run their own businesses."
Despite the growth in tourism businesses on the loop and in tourist traffic, Luby admitted the association itself is finding it harder every year financially.
SATA operates a tourism visitor centre next door to Foodland supermarket in Bay Bulls. Staff help tourists find accommodations and places to eat, as well as direct them to boat tours, dinner theatres, the Colony of Avalon, Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve and other attractions.
"That's our business," said Luby. "We help other businesses around here. Not only the primary businesses, such as the B&Bs, but the secondary and tertiary businesses."
Luby said SATA is able to run the centre thanks to help from Foodland and other sources. "We get a bit of money from the provincial government, our membership fees and the Canada Student Jobs program, which allows us to hire four students and a manager," he explained.
The group also sells advertising on a map of the region that it distributes to tourist establishments, the airport and other locations.
But, said Luby, "prices go up, things get tougher."
This past year, the province reduced the group's funding by $2,000 to $8,000.
"Our financial report doesn't look as comfortable as I'd like it to at the close of the year," Luby allowed. "Usually we wind up with about $4,000 tucked away in the bank to begin our operation next year, which is mid-May."
Net sales from the map and membership fees were about $9,000, Luby said. Other revenues, from Service Canada, come to about $16,000. Total payroll expenses were $24,000. "Though that sounds scary, most of that is taken care of by the Canada Student Jobs Program," he pointed out. Marketing and administration expenses, for printing and supplies, uniforms and other charges, came to about $5,000.
"Our net income is going to sound worse than it actually is," Luby cautioned. "It is minus $3,609."
But SATA will soon get its final payment from Service Canada for the student jobs and there is also a savings account with $4,000 in it, he noted.
Despite the challenges, Luby said, the service provided by SATA is vital to the growth of tourism in the region.
"By mid-June (next year) by our count, we will have 250,000 people who will have been helped by our little information centre," Luby said. "And very few of those are going back to St. John's. They are coming this way looking for anything from when is the next boat tour to where is the place for real good cod fish, to where is the East Coast Trail."
Luby said it isn't uncommon to see someone from a convention in St. John’s show up in sandals looking for directions to the trail.
Because the centre’s service is so important, Luby said, the group may soon ask the province for special funding to keep going. "Because we are making a serious positive dent in the local economy," he argued. "We have 311 kilometres of Irish Loop. There is just as much good stuff on the other side - Salmonier Nature Park, the Wilds golf course, other places to eat and see, the Claddagh Inn with excellent, excellent food... We have lots of growth here. Yes our financials don't seem as bright as they have in the past, but we still have enough funding to open next year."