Opinion: B.C.’s tourism and hospitality sector desperately needs a restart plan

With the industry facing a bleak year, government must act now to help ensure that our province can safely reopen to visitors as soon as possible.

Credit: Tourism Vancouver/Harbour Air

With the industry facing a bleak year, government must act now to help ensure that our province can safely reopen to visitors as soon as possible

Of all provincial industries, tourism has been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a huge problem for everyone. The sector is one of B.C.’s largest, historically employing more than 300,000 workers and contributing some $8 billion to gross domestic product.

Given that tourism generated $1.7 billion in tax revenue in 2018, when it contributed more to provincial GDP than any primary resources sector, it’s devastating news for our economy that many tourism operators have seen revenue plunge 90 percent for over a year. Making things worse is the termination of tens of thousands of tourism and hospitality jobs, impacting families across B.C. at a social and economic level.

Because tourism weaves through all communities and regions of our province, the pandemic’s trickle-down effect is particularly large and insidious. B.C.’s visitor economy provides revenue that makes the difference between sustainable operations and bankruptcy not only for thousands of restaurants, hotels, transportation providers and retailers but also for many other non-hospitality subsectors, suppliers and trades. In turn, B.C. residents enjoy countless products and experiences that are supported by domestic and export tourism dollars.  

With the border remaining closed for a second year and only a limited domestic market to draw from, B.C.’s tourism and hospitality industry is facing a similar dismal forecast for 2021. There’s more bad news: we now see international operators cancelling 2022 tours because B.C. can’t adequately define its safe restart conditions to allow the visitor economy to fully reopen.  

Next year’s sales season is already upon us—a period when tour operators normally make large cash commitments to secure air seats, hotels, meals and attraction tickets. It’s worrying to watch our longstanding customers book business with rival destinations because they see certainty in their restart plans and appreciate that positive signal toward tourism.

Other countries are quickly acting on this realization by publishing tourism restart plans, whose purpose is to give their industry a framework to allow the safe resumption of leisure travel. With vaccination rates rising, our sector believes that now is the time for the Province to act urgently to help save B.C.’s preeminent position as a world-class destination. 

Collaboration with the federal government and business leaders to establish Canada’s tourism restart program will be a make-or-break effort for the provincial industry. Otherwise, 40 years of infrastructure development and sustainable tourism momentum will be lost. Thanks to loss of jobs and tax revenue, few British Columbians will escape some impact from the growing devastation that B.C.’s tourism sector is suffering.

B.C.’s tourism industry has stepped up to support our health authorities. Now, to remain competitive against other destinations and to save many skilled jobs, it’s vital that government and industry work together to devise a plan that safely restarts domestic leisure travel and ensures, when the time is right, the smooth opening of our border.

Cornerstones of the recommended plan include:

  1. Definition of milestones and conditions that must be reached and met before travel restrictions lift and borders open, as well as operational criteria for post-opening. Because the tourism season is short and every day of revenue is crucial, this will let businesses efficiently use current downtime to plan and make restart investments. 
  2. Assuming that COVID will be with us for years, implementation of a vaccination verification process that synchronizes with other countries’. Non-vaccinated travellers can then be streamed through a safety channel using the same effective COVID procedures now deployed by airlines. This will allow equitable travel access for all global citizens while keeping Canadians safe (plane transmission of the coronavirus is less than 1 percent of passenger volume).
  3. Financial support during the critical restart phase. Cash-starved tourism companies need to invest in inventory and staff, so they’re especially vulnerable at this time. Essential steps to achieve this include tailored access to liquidity and workforce support in the form of continuing wage subsidies.

It’s not just the 2021 season that’s in jeopardy. The indicators for 2022 are red, so now is the time to develop a tourism-specific resumption plan signalling that B.C. understands the needs of its wholesale and retail customers, and is ready to restart tourism as soon as it’s safe.

As a vote of confidence, industry needs this plan next week, when Canada’s international wholesale tourism marketplace takes place virtually. This will give our sector a fair chance to rally behind government efforts and ensure that B.C.’s tourism economy relaunches strong and safely—and doesn’t die of exhaustion on the starting line.  

Mandy Farmer is president and CEO of Accent Inns. Chief Clarence Louie is CEO of Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp. Brian McCutcheon is founder and owner of ROAM AdventuresVictoria Olmstead is founder of Elisi Spa & Wilderness Resort. Nancy Stibbard is owner and CEO of the Capilano Group. John Wilson is president and CEO of the Wilson’s Group of Companies.