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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 23, 2020
If there’s such a thing as a COVID-19 success story in the tourism industry, you’ll find it on Long Island, a short ferry ride from Digby Neck.
A campground in its infancy is having a booming season, better than ever, to the utter shock of its owners.
Whale of a Time Camping in Freeport is owned by Gail and Reid Gillis. It’s built on a cliff with stunning views of the Bay of Fundy, where the sunset is so spectacular the place is abuzz every evening to find the perfect spot to soak it in and capture every colour.
It’s also a place where you can see (from your tent) whales puff water into the air.
It started as Reid’s dream, said Gail. He grew up on the island and owned the undeveloped property since he was 18. She’s from P.E.I., but now she’s utterly in love with the place.
“Four years ago we decided to put the road in, thinking we were going to live at the top (of the cliff) and we had people coming and saying, ‘You should really open a campground.’”
They started with a couple of sites to see if there was interest. Over the past three years, they’ve slowly built up the site to host 15 spots on the shore, seven on top of the cliff, and two cottages, all with their two young sons in tow. This year was going to be their first full season and they had high hopes. Instead, they were just happy they could open in July.
“We were grateful we were allowed to open but we never anticipated this volume. We thought maybe a few people here and there . . . and now the phone is ringing off the hook,” Gail said.
“We just look at each other every night and we’re like, ‘We’re doing it. It’s working! People love what we love.’”
Within two weeks of opening, they were filling up. They even needed to hire a staff member to help with demand.
Most of the customers are Nova Scotians, with a few from the Atlantic bubble, who have never journeyed to this part of the province before. Some of them didn’t know the area existed.
“We can’t thank Nova Scotia enough, really, for supporting us. These amazing people are supporting their community, supporting their province,” said Gail.
“We’ve had tears in our eyes because we can’t believe how welcoming everybody is to the project.”
It’s also been a boon to the community. The town’s store loves the extra business, and guests are taking in multiple whale-watching tours.
Amanda Crocker, a guide with Freeport Whale and Seabird Tours, also grew up on the island and has known Reid since she was three. She is thrilled they’re creating a sustainable business in the community when so many of their peers have moved away.
“I’m glad to see people my age staying around here and making a living because so many of us, once they graduate, they leave and don’t come back. They go and find their careers in other places,” she said.
“With COVID happening, this would be one of the biggest reasons people wouldn’t come to the area anymore and they’re still full. So obviously this place is going to be around for awhile . . . and hopefully I’ll be able to see them pass their campground on to their kids.”
But the whale-watching business hasn’t been doing as well. Crocker said that last summer they operated 131 trips but only 15-20 so far this year.
“We work hard to be able to stay here,” said Crocker, who has been a tour guide for 25 years.
“We’re not in trouble yet with things but it’s definitely making things harder. We don’t have a whole lot of extra money to have around right now for extra things, but we love our way of life here and can’t imagine anything else other than this.”
They usually have customers from all over the world but most of them this year are from the Halifax region, Yarmouth and the Annapolis Valley. Crocker said she’s having fun getting to know her neighbours a little bit better “and seeing the people from Nova Scotia who are so close to doing these things and have never seen a whale before.”
Her family fishes for lobster in the winter and does whale-watching tours in the summer. Her kids are learning the trade, too, and she hopes they stay to make their lives here.
There must be something about this island because Gail gets emotional just talking about the experience: the natural beauty and the warm community. She calls it a magical place.
She says its ability to distract people from all that 2020 has brought is what has made her campground thrive this summer.
“You can just come here and forget what’s happening everywhere else and feel normal. It’s summer, and that’s just how you’re supposed to be; you’re supposed to relax, enjoy it and breathe the sea air.”