MONTREAL -- The pandemic has created a void in many people's lives: no international travel for most, no big gatherings, limited contact with friends and family, and overall, fewer activities that can be done while keeping two metres apart.

The result? Quebecers are spending far more time at home.

Many people searching for ways to get out of the house safely are turning to their cars, taking them for a road trip across the province, a drive-in movie, and even getting closer to nature from the comfort and safety of a steel cage on wheels.

According to a CAA Quebec survey from June, 27 per cent of people planned to look for destinations that would bring them closer to nature when restrictions lifted.

That's led to a record number of residents visiting local attractions this summer, such as Parc Safari and Parc Omega. The nature parks offer the perfect pandemic combination: spending a day surrounded by nature and animals from the safety of a vehicle.

Parc Omega, a sprawling 2,200-acre animal safari in Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, welcomed 300,000 visitors last year.

The park is on track to welcome the same number this year, said Billie Giroux, head of communications for the park. That's without the usual number of European tourists, currently restricted by the travel ban, that typically visit the park to drive the 15-kilometre trail to see and feed wild animals indigenous to North America.

A buffalo at Quebec's Omega Park
photo: A buffalo moves amid the cars at Quebec's Omega Park (CTV Montreal / Dale Crockett)

While they have lost visitors from Europe, Giroux said Quebecers and visitors from Ontario have filled the gap.

"It's been a good summer. We have all the activities. The walking trails are also open, and the restaurants and gift shops with all the COVID-19 special measures and guidelines," she said.

With low attendance at many attractions and businesses, the park being as busy as usual during a pandemic is a rare success story.

Giroux believes the car tour has helped it weather the pandemic.

"Our concept here at Parc Omega is all about being in your own car, and it's really safe and a unique experience. People want to connect with nature, do outdoor activities, so I think our concept is perfect for that. We have a lot of space at the park, so it's a safe place, and you can do it with all the distancing measures in place," she said.

For some people, though, it may seem counterintuitive to want to be closer to nature from the inside of a car -- particularly as chemicals and gasses get released into the atmosphere and, at times, directly into the muzzles of the deer, elk and buffalo that nuzzle up to vehicles for a carrot.

Carrot at Omega Park
photo: Visitors to Omega Park feed the animals from their cars (CTV Montreal / Dale Crockett)

Others are concerned that society's increasing dependence on cars will wipe out any advances made fighting climate change.

"For some good -- but also many wrong -- reasons, the car has been seen as a refuge by many during the pandemic," said Andréanne Brazeau, a mobility analyst at Equiterre. "It is vital to reverse that trend in the near future."

While there were fewer emissions at the peak of the pandemic, Brazeau said she is concerned about a rise in car sales.

"Without a doubt, there will be permanent changes in the way we move and live our lives, but we have to remember that the environmental crisis has not disappeared during the pandemic," she said.

Brazeau said she sees some encouraging signs, including that more people are turning to active transportation modes like cycling.

She suggests looking for ways to strike a balance between the environment and public health.

"For example, Parc Oméga and similar parks could suggest a cycling path to visitors, which would allow for a real experience in nature, while also limiting one's impact on air quality as well as respecting the new social distancing norms," she said.