VICTORIA -- In Victoria's inner harbour, the fleet of boats owned by Prince of Whales Whale Watching sits empty, despite it being the heart of the tourist season.

Ian MacPhee, the comptroller for the company, says with 60 per cent of customers typically coming from outside Canada, the whale-watching season is going to be a lean one this summer.

In fact, the whole tourism industry has been hammered by COVID-19.

“Tourism is toast for this year in British Columbia,” MacPhee said.

With the country’s border closed and non-essential travel still on hold for now, whale watching is just one part of the industry in dire straights.

MacPhee says Prince of Whales will survive, but he worries about other businesses.

“Without earning our bread and butter during the summer, where do we eat in the winter,” he notes.

Extending the metaphor, MacPhee says, “You know we’re no different than a squirrel, he has to put his nuts in the tree to survive the winter and there are no nuts.”

Premier John Horgan said Wednesday that tourist travel within the province for British Columbians is coming soon, as is the release of a province-wide marketing campaign aimed at getting folks to travel across B.C.

“A sense of peace and safety is critical within the travelling public,” Horgan said. “British Columbians need to get out, stretch their legs and go to other places, but they’re not feeling particularly comfortable about that just yet.”

But Paul Nursey, the head of Destination Greater Victoria, says time is of the essence when it comes to announcing a plan to salvage the sector.

“Time is out, we’re out of time,” Nursey said Wednesday.

And Nursey says marketing shouldn’t be the focus. Rather, financial assistance – like grants or low-interest loans – should be.

“The concern is that there won’t be any businesses to market,” he said. “So I think we really need to turn our attention to solvency issues.”

Bill Lewis with the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria says hotels have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. He says the whole tourism industry needs help from the province for at least the next year or 18 months.

“We’re going through our summer season, when we would normally make our profits to carry us through the off season,” Lewis says. “Without that, there’s concern about how many businesses get through next winter.”

A bleak warning, echoed from the waters of the harbour by MacPhee.

“There’s already talk of some absolutely premium tourism players that won’t make it through,” he says. “I think you’ll see those announcements as the summer rolls along.”