Manitoba will miss out on up to $900M in tourism revenue because of COVID-19: Travel Manitoba

Economic projections suggest that in a best-case scenario, the Manitoba tourism industry will lose about $400 million because of the pandemic. The worst-case scenario number is closer to $900 million.

Regions that rely on international travel — like Churchill — will be hit hardest, CEO Colin Ferguson says

Economic projections suggest that in a best-case scenario, the Manitoba tourism industry will lose about $400 million because of the pandemic. The worst-case scenario number is closer to $900 million. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Manitoba could lose close to a billion dollars in tourism revenue this year because of travel restrictions brought on to stem the spread of COVID-19, according to the Crown corporation responsible for promoting tourism in the province.

But those restrictions also mean Manitobans will be limited in where they can spend their own vacation funds — a reality Travel Manitoba is hoping to capitalize on to encourage people to explore their own province, the organization's president and chief executive officer says.

"This is the year to bucket list Manitoba," said Colin Ferguson. "This is the year to really look around your own province and see what we've got."

Economic projections developed by Destination Canada, a federal Crown coporation that promotes tourism in the country, suggest that in a best-case scenario, the tourism industry in Manitoba would lose about $400 million, Ferguson said.

That scenario would rely on more Manitoba businesses opening in the next two months, bringing the province to "a new normal" that permits some tourism by July.

In a worst-case scenario — that sees most places closed until September, meaning tourism's lucrative summer months are lost completely — the projections suggest the industry would lose about $900 million this year, and likely even more in 2021 and beyond, he said.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is one of Winnipeg's more recently built tourist attractions. (John Einarson/CBC)

In a typical year, Manitobans travelling within the province make up about 80 per cent of tourism visits and about 58 per cent of tourism dollars generated, Ferguson said.

"So it's pretty significant to encourage Manitobans to continue to travel within their own province at a time when all the restrictions have been lifted and we're following all the proper social distancing protocols," he said.

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The projections are not hard and fast numbers, but they represent a definitive drop for the industry, which the Conference Board of Canada and Statistics Canada say is worth about $1.6 billion, Ferguson said.

Blowback from the illness caused by the new coronavirus has brought the momentum of Manitoba's tourism industry — which picked up last year when guidebook publisher Lonely Planet listed the province among the "world's best travel destinations" — to a screeching halt, Ferguson said.

"We were really on a roll," he said. "We were experiencing about $100-million increases each year."

The hit caused by COVID-19 extends to provincial support for the industry, through a plan that put five per cent of tourism revenues back into marketing.

"As we saw increases, obviously everybody won," Ferguson said. "[Now] the numbers are pretty alarming."

As for the future, "it's going to take a while to rebuild the industry. Tourism was the first hit and it may be the last to recover," he said.

"We don't have a crystal ball to say what exactly is going to happen."

A polar bear statue stands in front of the Port of Churchill. The community famous for polar bear tourism could be among the hardest hit by tourism slowdowns caused by COVID-19 restrictions, Colin Ferguson says. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Tourism spots that rely heavily on international travel — like Churchill, which has a beluga whale season coming up and a polar bear season starting in the fall — will be hit especially hard, Ferguson said.

"There's still a lot of hope that the polar bear season can go as planned, but it's going to be largely dependent on whether or not there's international flights in the air."

Though losing some of Manitoba's major summer events and festivals was a huge hit, Ferguson is hopeful as he watches the gradual reopening of restaurant patios, museums and galleries across the province. 

"I'm confident if we continue to flatten this curve and the numbers [of new COVID-19 cases] continue to stay low that we will see further openings going forward, and hopefully we'll be able to recapture as much of the summer as possible."

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson