Viewpoint: Tourism sector requires financial assistance

BC’s tourism industry could be fully recovered in 2023. To make it so, the government must act today.

It’s no surprise that BC’s 2020 tourism industry is in the tank. One estimate is a 69 per cent decline in tourism revenues from 2019. It will be difficult to regain the sustainable tourism industry we once took for granted.

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We want our visitors back. We need airplanes in the skies, trains on their tracks, conventioneers convening, cruise ships in the passage, restaurants fully open and visitor attractions humming with happy tourists, locals included.

A viable 2023 envisions a return to our 19,300 working businesses in the tourism sector, ensuring 160,000 direct jobs, all generated by $21.5 billion in visitor spending. That provides $4.5 billion in tax revenues each year across all levels of government. To achieve that, we need a return of six million overnight international visitor arrivals.

Of course, we’d all wish 2021 to be the year of full recovery. It’s not going to happen. Even if the COVID-19 crisis abates on a favourable timeline and borders safely open, people around the world will need to find the willingness, money, time, freedom and personal priority to travel again.

Yet, the stepping stone year of 2021 could see a huge increase in visitors to BC with their spending and resulting jobs for British Columbians. If we act now. And 2022 could see continued growth of foreign visitors, if we do the right things soon to build toward that.

We used to say: “Most people in tourism don’t know they’re in tourism.”

Now, educated by COVID-19, everyone knows the damage of a tourism downturn. If a hotel is empty, no one is needed to clean rooms, do the laundry, fix the furnace, paint the building or pave the street out front.

You know the story of hospitality: If a restaurant is closed, no one needs the food supply chain. Not the fishers or delivery truck drivers. Not waiters or cooks, or someone to buss tables. No taxi drivers or those repairing refrigeration units.

Here’s a hard question with an easy answer: What’s the impact on local jobs and employee spending when there are no vehicles with American licence plates filling up at our gas stations around the province?

We could describe a thriving BC tourism year in 2023 like this: In January 2023, businesses around the province have plenty of advance bookings for the year ahead, with deposits already paid. There is strong consumer confidence that travellers will have the funds and opportunities for weekend and weeks long vacations in the coming 12 months. Tourism businesses around the province offer year-round employment with seasonal bumps for ski and summer destinations.

That’s what it was like in January 2020. That’s what it could be like in January 2023 if the provincial government delivers on three things right now:

1. A strategic investment of $680 million to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our visitor economy, and reposition businesses for a future of job creation and service delivery;

2. Provision of working capital recovery grants aimed at 2020 through 2022;

3. Support funding for communities, businesses and associations to adapt marketing and visitor servicing to the new world of hospitality and tourism.

There is no shortcut. Even with this financial assistance, it’s a long journey ahead.

The immense benefits of a healthy, viable, sustainable tourism industry are economic, social, cultural and environmental. The positive impact on city, rural and Indigenous communities is well documented. We must make it happen, again.

We need short-term action for long-term benefits; it’s all in the recovery. Act now.

Rick Antonson is the former president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, and former chair of Destination Marketing Association International.

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