Pandemic expected to hamper Manitoba tourism with a 3-year hangover

Manitoba's tourism industry is not expected to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic until 2024, thanks to greatly reduced international visits and a lingering aversion to travel in general, the Conference Board of Canada projects.

Loss of international visits, aversion to travel will take time to overcome, report projects

Churchill has been starved of ecotourism visits from international travellers during the pandemic. (Alex Beatty/Churchill Northern Studies Centre)

Manitoba's tourism industry is not expected to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic until 2024, thanks to greatly reduced international visits and a lingering aversion to travel in general.

The Conference Board of Canada projects it will take two more years for Manitoba's tourism industry to generate the same annual revenue it did prior to the pandemic and three more years for the actual number of visitors to return.

"Following a distressing year, total visits to Manitoba are not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024," the board states in a new report called Friendly Manitoba's Tourism Left Colder.

In 2020, overnight visits to Manitoba dropped by an estimated 51 per cent, the report states. Actual tourist numbers for the year are still being compiled.

Every type of tourist spent fewer nights in Manitoba last year. Overnight tourist trips by Manitobans within their own province were projected to drop 40 per cent, while interprovincial tourism declined by a projected 60 per cent and international visits declined 90 per cent.

"Travel restrictions cut off most American and overseas travellers from the Manitoba travel market in 2020. However, these traveller segments are relatively smaller in Manitoba than in other provinces, so the impact has not been as substantial," the report states.

"Yet the devastating 90 per cent drop in visits from these travellers means that it will take time to regain historical visitor numbers."

The report also warns a continued aversion to travel, even after the pandemic recedes, will delay the full recovery of the tourism sector.

2024 recovery may be best-case scenario: Travel Manitoba

Colin Ferguson, president and CEO of Travel Manitoba, said a 2024 recovery is in line with his agency's own projections.

"That may be one of the best-case scenarios," he said, adding a tourism rebound depends on vaccinations proceeding, pandemic restrictions easing and international borders reopening.

"At least the light at the end of tunnel isn't a train any more," Ferguson said.

Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, is slightly more optimistic about a tourism rebound, at least among leisure travellers to start.

Business travel and conferences will take longer to return, she said. 

It's unclear when or even whether large events like CFL football will return in 2021. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Some tourist attractions are not expected to resume operating in 2021. The slow easing of pandemic restrictions on group sizes means it's possible another summer festival season will be lost this year. It's also unclear to what extent performing arts venues will resume operating this year.

As well, the Winnipeg Jets will play the remainder of their season without fans in the stands at Bell MTS Place and it's unclear whether the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be able to open their season in front of fans at IG Field in June.

The continued closure of international borders to leisure travel would also hurt Manitoba fly-in fishing lodges and ecotourism destinations such as Churchill, Ferguson said.

Nonetheless, the Conference Board is predicting a rebound in domestic tourism this year.

"We anticipate that total overnight visits will jump by 70.1 per cent in 2021 following widespread vaccine distribution and the loosening of public health restrictions," the board states in its report.

Some of that jump will come from Manitobans who cannot go elsewhere. Ferguson warned anyone looking to book a summer cabin rental or resort stay in 2021 to do that sooner rather than later.

The Conference Board researched its report before direct international flights to Winnipeg were placed on hold. Ferguson and Spiring said rapid testing upon arrival at Richardson International Airport could help those flights resume. 


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