OPINION: Tourism must regain its place as one of B.C.'s most vital and visible economic engines

October 13, 2021
Jock Finlayson

Two insights from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are: the high risks facing industries that rely on fragile international supply chains, and the inability of many small businesses to weather economic, health, or environmental shocks.

As we look to recover from the pandemic, it has become clear that more of our businesses should be taking steps to strengthen domestic supply chains wherever possible. Equally, it would be positive for the provincial economy if we could grow more large local businesses that are equipped to withstand economic downturns and market disruptions.

In the B.C. context, these lessons are especially relevant to tourism — the sector hardest hit by COVID-19.

British Columbia’s tourism industry stood tall before the virus arrived in March 2020, generating $9 billion in gross domestic product, directly supporting 150,000 jobs, and paying more than $6 billion in annual wages and salaries.

As the province stumbles through what we hope is the final stages of the COVID saga, the tourism industry needs to find new ways of working with other B.C. companies and suppliers to expand the business they do together. Tourism leaders must also accelerate efforts to promote the sector’s myriad attractions and offerings within the province as well as to customers from beyond B.C.

These goals may sound ambitious (or vague), but we can learn from successful past efforts.

One of these — the B.C. 2010 Commerce Centre — was a product of Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The Commerce Centre was one of the most innovative initiatives associated with the Games.

Established by the provincial government, its mandate was to help local companies become suppliers to the Games and — more importantly — show them how to become long-term suppliers to national and international agencies of all types. In the lead-up to 2010, the Commerce Centre helped over 5,000 B.C. businesses become suppliers to government agencies across Canada, international sporting organizations and events, Games sponsors, and the Games Organizing Committee itself.

In part because of this work, B.C.-based companies were awarded 70 per cent of the total value of all contracts issued for the 2010 Winter Games. The Centre was particularly adept in increasing the engagement of Indigenous-owned businesses. In total, about $60 million in Olympic-related procurement contracts were awarded to local Indigenous companies.

The creation of a similar organization — let’s call it the B.C. Tourism Commerce Centre — based on a partnership between government and the tourism industry, could work with B.C. businesses to understand and pursue commercial opportunities by becoming suppliers to the local and Canada-wide tourism industry, spur the development of new tourism products and services, and increase B.C.’s share of the vast and — before COVID — rapidly growing global tourism supplier marketplace.

A B.C. Tourism Commerce Centre could bolster the resiliency of the local tourism industry while also fostering the development of new products and visitor experiences. One can easily imagine that the combined efforts and expertise of the tourism industry and other successful B.C. sectors, such as digital technology, film and television, and clean energy, could result in exciting, unique, safe, and sustainable tourism products that could become an ongoing part of what B.C. has to offer visitors.

As well, a successful B.C. Tourism Commerce Centre could serve as a model for productive collaborations between industries and suppliers in other sectors of our economy, as they look to rebound and gain new business once the pandemic has ended.

Before 2020, tourism stood out as one of our most vital and visible economic engines. It can be again, but to reach its potential the industry must expand and improve its bonds with other B.C. sectors and suppliers and grow more large tourism-related businesses with the resources to survive when the next shock occurs.

Jock Finlayson is a senior policy adviser with the Business Council of B.C. Ed Mansfield is president of Mansfield Consulting.

As published in the Vancouver Sun.

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