tourists
Credit: Hubert Kang

Tourism plays a central role in the B.C. economy. In an upcoming series, we explore how the industry is faring in five key areas, from labour supply to Indigenous options to brand identity

Whether it’s your first visit or your 15th summer staycation, B.C. is one of the world’s best places to be a tourist. But what is the tourism industry? For Walt Judas, it comes back to the guy in Sicamous who fuels houseboats. “He’s in the tourism industry but operates a gas station,” says the CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC).

Judas, whose not-for-profit group represents 20 sector associations covering everything from taxis and hotels to fishing resorts and ski areas, points out that many people don’t know they work in tourism. “It’s this collection of sectors that come together under the umbrella of tourism, and the power of those sectors is what makes us such a formidable force.”

No kidding. Using data from Statistics Canada, BC Stats tracks the economic value of tourism for Destination British Columbia Corp., the Crown agency that markets the industry and promotes its development. In 2016, B.C. tourism revenue—money received by businesses, individuals and governments—totalled $17 billion, a jump of almost 8 percent over 2015. That year, more than 19,000 tourism-related businesses employed some 133,000 people.

The industry contributed $7.9 billion to the provincial economy in 2016, as measured through gross domestic product in constant 2007 dollars. That’s a 5.6-percent increase from the previous year—and more than mining, forestry and logging, or agriculture and fish.

B.C. tourism may be in good health, but challenges lie ahead, Judas admits. With the industry confronting a labour shortage, he wants more young people to consider tourism as a lifelong career. Although several post-secondary institutions offer training, many students come from abroad and return home after graduation, Judas says, while B.C. residents from the programs often end up working in other industries. “How do we retain those and get past the perception that tourism is only about low-skilled and low-paying jobs?” he asks. “There are many careers in tourism that are, in fact, lifelong careers.”

Housing is another pressure point—and not just because it’s unaffordable. In smaller communities, “it’s one thing to attract someone to work at your resort,” Judas says. “It’s quite another to have accommodation available for them.” That shortage is mostly thanks to landlords favouring vacation rentals over long-term tenants, Judas argues. “Consequently there isn’t a place for employees to stay, and that’s problematic.”

Judas also cites the clash between adventure tourism operators and industries such as forestry and mining over use of Crown land. “You have tenure holders in tourism that are often usurped by natural resource sectors,” he says, calling for both sides to accommodate each other. “One of our goals is to ensure that tourism is a part of every discussion when there are land use planning issues or taxation or other things that would impact our industry, which is largely made up of small-business operators.”

Environmentally and socially sustainable tourism is a hot topic, notes Marsha Walden, president and CEO of Destination BC. (That’s good news, given a recent Australian study showing that the industry contributes 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.) For B.C., it means “making sure that the products we have are meeting global expectations on the green front,” Walden explains, “but also that the way we introduce and move tourists around our province meets social expectations of our own residents—that we continue to be a very welcoming environment because we’re not overwhelming communities with too many tourists.”

Metro Vancouver welcomed a record 10.3 million overnight visitors last year, Tourism Vancouver reports, and there are plenty more on the way. By 2030, international tourist arrivals worldwide will reach 1.8 billion, according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, versus 940 million in 2010.

“It spells enormous opportunity for the tourism industry, and particularly for British Columbia, which is so well positioned to capture two of the biggest travelling populations in the world, the Americans and the Chinese,” Walden says. “And so we’re in an enviable position, but we also need to manage how that impacts our province economically and socially.”