B.C.’s top tourism execs say the sector is back… sort of

Our editor-in-chief swings by the Partners in Tourism International Golf Tournament to get the scoop on the state of the industry

The trouble started months ago, when I got an email inviting me to the annual Partners in Tourism Invitational Golf Tournament at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. It promised a day on the golf course with some of B.C.’s tourism leaders to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. I considered attending the event without actually participating in the golf, something that managing editor Alyssa Hirose quickly called “the coward’s way out.”

Okay, fine, I thought. I’ll show her. After all, my golf game has been improving, thanks to friends who drag me out to pitch-and-putt and smaller, so-called executive courses. As I have moved reluctantly into older age to reach the point where the people I know are trading in their backwards baseball caps for what I have termed “old man golf hats,” tackling the sport of golf—and developing the ability to say you’ve been playing sports when you’ve actually been walking around—has become my fate.

So, I bravely answered yes. Over the next few weeks, doubt followed me around like a bad cough. “I usually lose nine or 10 balls there,” said my friend Daniel, a golfer about 10 times as talented and experienced as me, when describing the course. “It’s a monster, straight up the mountain.” As someone who doesn’t even take his driver out of the bag, I had to ask the question: Was I about to completely embarrass myself?

On the day of the event, that query is answered succinctly by every member in my foursome, who all initially insist they don’t golf very much, and who each proceed to hit massive drives perfectly placed down the fairway. 

When I get to the tee box with my five-iron in hand, I’m smart enough to stick to looping the ball down the fairway (about 100 yards back from the rest of the crew). The other three are kind enough to pile on the compliments, and we continue on our way.

I realize my early fears were unfounded, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Not only are we playing a scramble—where you hit from where the best shot of your group landed—the people I’ve been placed with (probably not coincidentally) also don’t seem likely to lose their minds when we inevitably fall far short of winning the tournament.

In my cart is Michael Drake, director of sales for Destination Vancouver, and, as per his reputation in the industry, the happiest man in tourism. Him being paired with me is also probably not a coincidence, but I’ll take it nonetheless. Rounding out our foursome are Adam Laker, general manager of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, and David Tikkanen, head of the tourism marketing management program at BCIT.

In some respects, I find it hard to separate the individuals from their organizations and what they represent to the tourism industry. Drake is warm and welcoming, with an indomitable smile that belies a thoughtful and studious mind.

“Everybody’s saying it’s back now,” he says of tourism in B.C. “And it is and that’s wonderful. But it also isn’t the same.” One of Drake’s main responsibilities is bringing big events to Vancouver and he’s been working overtime lately in trying to get the city and province back to what can now be called the glory years of tourism.

Destination BC stats for January to June 2023 (the latest available at press time) report that B.C. has seen a 77.6-percent increase in international visitors over the same period in 2022. But that 2023 number is down 22 percent compared to 2019. The national picture is similar: data from Statistics Canada shows a year-over-year increase of more than $2 billion in non-domestic tourism spending in the second quarter of 2023. But that’s still more than $2 billion less than what the sector saw in the second quarter of 2019.

Dressed to the nines (old man golf hat included, of course), Laker exudes the type of old-school cool that’s necessary if you’re going to run one of the country’s most iconic hotels. He’s confident and almost never makes a movement that couldn’t be described as smooth. He reacts to both 300-yard drives onto the fairway and slices into trees with similar self-effacing grins or comments. You can picture him gladhanding with guests, giving them an excellent, refined experience—palling around with them while still retaining control in every moment. He’s more reserved with his thoughts on the industry, which makes sense given the tumult of the past few years. Anything can happen—because it already did, right?

Tikkanen is humble and jovial—what the kids might call a “good hang.” But he gets serious when pressed about the challenges facing both BCIT’s program and the industry at large. “We need more people,” he says as the other two nod in approval. “We need to get the message out. The tourism industry, like our hotels and shops, is open for business. We want people to look at it like they do the tech industry—there’s something for everyone in tourism, there are so many different skillsets that you can use, so many different ways you can succeed.”

It’s a stark contrast to my golf game, which has one semi-effective weapon in its arsenal: a 60- to 70-yard chip with the pitching wedge. On the ninth hole, after some nice drives get us on the fairway, I use my pitch-and-putt background to chip the ball safely onto the green. We all try for the birdie putt. Mine comes closest but doesn’t quite fall in. It’s a tap-in for par and I’ll take it. The guys applaud me and it feels, dare I say, good? No comment on the rest of the round.

Recover and Resume

Source: Destination BC

  • In August 2023, tourism in B.C. hit a five-year employment rate high.
  • In May 2020, the B.C. tourism industry saw its highest unemployment rate (33.6%) in the last five years. By August 2023 it was down to 4%.
  • Average hourly earnings have also risen in the sector. In August 2023, the average tourism worker made $28 an hour in B.C., up from $21 in August 2019.
  • 15.5%  increase in ferry traffic along Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo routes during the first six months of 2023.
  • B.C. saw 560,950 international visitors (not including U.S.) in June 2023, a 45.3% increase from 2022. Still, it was a far cry from June 2019, which saw 825,805.
  • When it comes to U.S. travel to B.C., that segment seems to have fully recovered. B.C. had a 1.6% increase in U.S. visitors in June 2023 compared to June 2019.