B.C. 2.0.: Tourism came to a crashing halt thanks to COVID-19. Is there opportunity in the rubble?

The forecast is decidedly cloudy.

Credit: Cascadia Air

Campbell River-based Cascadia Air picked an interesting time to launch

The forecast is decidedly cloudy

What goes up must come down again. It’s as true for Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket as it is for a balloon. Many in B.C.’s tourism industry must have known that the winning streak would end at some point: 2019 marked the 10th year in a row that revenue grew, reaching $21.5 billion, according to Destination British Columbia. But local players probably weren’t expecting it to happen like this.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has struck tourism businesses around the world especially hard, it might be years before B.C. gets back to those 2019 numbers.

“Having the brakes put on is pretty severe to our industry; it’s been devastating,” says Greg Klassen, partner at Vancouver-based tourism consulting firm Twenty31 and former interim CEO of Destination Canada. “Not only are we a high-touch business, which is a real challenge right now, we’re also a business that relies on international travel, which is going to be one of the very last things that returns.”

When it comes to tourism in 2020, Destination BC is forecasting losses of about 130,000 jobs and $16.8 billion in revenue. In hopes of cushioning the blow, the provincial government agency has already provided $400,000 to help groups like the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets and the BC Craft Brewers Guild support businesses, implement health and safety measures and develop marketing plans.

Meanwhile, the British Columbia Regional Tourism Secretariat has launched the British Columbia Tourism Resiliency Network, which will receive $1 million in funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada.

The industry’s priority will be in encouraging interprovincial travel—when restrictions in smaller towns ease and governments and residents feel more secure about opening up their areas.

That’s certainly what Cascadia Airways is banking on. In a master class on bad timing, the Campbell River–based airline officially launched in January. So instead of sending paying customers up and down B.C.’s coast as planned, Cascadia pivoted to carrying essential personnel and cargo to remote communities.

The shift, financed entirely by the company itself, just made sense, says COO and chief pilot Jeremy Barrett. “As people were starting to stop flying, we thought, Well, we don’t want to collapse alongside with the industry,” Barrett recalls. “We were already not operating at that point, so it was easier for us—we were still in the gear-up, startup mode.”

Although the gesture is partly about doing a service for British Columbians, it’s also a strategic move that Barrett is hoping will get Cascadia’s name out there. “This was a way for us as a new and emerging company to come out and show everybody that we’re looking to build long-term relationships,” he says. “We’re not looking to come out, make a quick buck and go home.”

When told of Cascadia’s dilemma, Klassen says the airline has a “super challenge for sure, but perhaps a glimmer of opportunity. They have a chance to build their business based on a post-COVID world rather than shift or transition the business they’re in, like an Air Canada might have to do. They can design their aircraft, their procedures and business model to support the possibility of social distancing.”

Barrett agrees. Originally, Cascadia planned to fly small aircraft holding about nine passengers to places where larger carriers don’t offer much service, like Gillies Bay, Port Alberni, Qualicum Beach and Tofino. So it won’t have to reduce the size of its flights too much to cater to government regulations and customer anxiety alike.

“It’s given us a chance to space the seats a little further apart and provide a little better social distancing,” says Barrett, who notes that the four-plane airline has removed some seating and will allow a maximum of six passengers per flight. “On top of that, we’ve been cleaning and disinfecting the aircraft and providing personal protective equipment to our passengers. We give them the option to not only get into a clean environment but to prevent the spread as well.”

At press time, the next step for Cascadia, which has four more planes on order, was a soft launch in June. With many other B.C. carriers looking to get back on track, Barrett acknowledges that will be tricky. “Not everyone is going to start full-bore,” he says. “We all have to test the market, see what people are looking to do, where they’re travelling, where they’re going—vacation, business. We don’t want to have a lot of scheduled flights out there flying around empty.”

In other words, expect some turbulence as B.C.’s tourism industry tries to take off again.