As policy-makers struggle to tabulate the immense damage being done by the COVID-19 pandemic, the shuttering of local businesses, and the onset of a global economic downturn, few B.C. industries are being hit harder than tourism. Globally, cross-border travel has come to a halt and airlines have stopped serving most international routes. For 2020 as a whole, forecasters expect a huge drop in overnight “tourist arrivals” worldwide, including in North America. The impact of this unprecedented situation is painfully evident in B.C.
For B.C., the health of tourism matters: it is one of the province’s most important industries, serving as a key source of employment and business activity across the province. According to Destination British Columbia, 160,000 jobs and $6 billion in wage and salary income depend on the industry. In 2019, tourism generated aggregate revenues of roughly $21 billion, a jump of more than 50 per cent since 2008. Some of this was spending by B.C. residents on within-province travel and at local hotels, restaurants and other venues. But almost $8 billion consisted of “export revenues,” a category that captures spending by non-B.C. residents on goods and services purchased while visiting our province. Tourism export earnings exceed those garnered from the sale of B.C. minerals and agri-food and fish products – making tourism one of the province’s leading export sectors.
Sadly, the tourism industry is staring at an economic calamity. The virtual cessation of air travel, the shutting of the Canada-U.S. border, and the closure of local restaurants, stores, parks, and entertainment and cultural facilities mean the number of out-of-province visitors will plunge this spring and summer – the most critical months for many tourism businesses. The economic carnage is widespread.
To begin with, more than half of the stunning 396,000 jobs lost in B.C. in March and April were in industries that are part of the broad tourism sector – hotels and motels, eating and drinking establishments, other segments of retail trade, air transportation, and leisure, entertainment and recreational services. Every segment of B.C.’s diverse tourism industry – from guide outfitters and fishing camp operators to hotels, resorts, taxis, museums, and luxury retail businesses – is being hammered by the disappearance of visitors. The industry has never experienced anything like it.
A recent on-line survey conducted by the British Columbia Regional Tourism Secretariat paints an alarming picture. It finds only 37 per cent of B.C. hotels, motels and other tourism businesses believe they can survive through the end of the summer, given social distancing measures and other operational restrictions currently in place. Visitor bookings continue to be cancelled or postponed, with four-fifths of the tourism businesses surveyed reporting slower bookings into the fall months. The convention, meetings and events business has cratered. And, many tourism businesses are grappling with a severe cash flow crunch as revenues shrivel yet fixed costs remain.
Thankfully, earlier this month the B.C. government unveiled its economic re-opening plan. In the coming weeks, restaurants, hotels, motels and most other consumer-facing business will be allowed to resume operations, subject to new health and safety protocols to protect employees and customers. However, the plan specified no date for the return of “international tourism,” suggesting that it may have to await the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. If so, that spells bad news for the various segments of the B.C. tourism industry that depend on visitors from overseas and the United States to help drive their business.
What can be done? The near-term outlook for international travel is dim. Some Americans will come if the border re-opens before the summer, but in smaller numbers than in previous seasons. For now, re-building tourism should focus on bolstering the domestic market and encouraging more visitors from next-door Alberta.
Now is the time for British Columbians to travel and vacation within the province, not just this summer but into the fall. This includes visiting B.C. communities that one may not have experienced before. It may also involve opting for close-to-home “staycations.” Those with the ability to do so should step up and patronize B.C. hotels, restaurants, sightseeing venues, cultural attractions, and other local tourism-businesses to help keep the industry alive until international visitors return.
Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia
As published in Black Press.