Federal funding disparity 'frustrating,' say Sask. tourism workers
Saskatchewan's tourism industry has taken a hard hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many who work in the sector say the federal government has not done enough to help.
Recently, Ottawa announced a combined $46 million in additional tourism funding for Quebec and Atlantic Canada. However, according to Minister of Parks, Culture and Sport Gene Makowsky, the Saskatchewan industry received only a $1.5 million boost.
Jim Bence, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel & Hospitality Association, expects that funding disparity will lead to an unequal playing field across the country.
"It's going to have a huge impact," he said.
"I think that as we emerge from COVID-19 and people in Canada start to travel, we have so much to offer here in Saskatchewan.… I think that it does put us at a disadvantage when other provinces get so much more than we do."
And while the pandemic has created challenges for the tourism industry across the country, Bence says the federal government's decision to spend more money on the eastern provinces comes as no surprise.
"So much of it comes down to 'where does the population base lie?' in terms of who's going to support the government going forward," he said.
"I think that's why it's disproportionately weighted towards Ontario and Quebec. You see these types of things happen over and over again, whether it's tourism or with other aspects of our economy, and it feels like we're being iced a lot of the time. It's frustrating. It's disappointing, more than anything."
Ron Mamer sits on the tourism committee for Coronach, Sask., where hundreds of tourists come every year to see the cliffs, canyons and ravines of the Big Muddy Valley.
He says the federal government's decision to give Saskatchewan such a small fraction of the additional tourism funding is demoralizing for many small-town tour operators.
"I understand there's tourism in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces — I understand that," he said. "But Saskatchewan has a lot of places, a lot of tourism. That's one of our big industries in the province."
Getting a small percentage "of whatever the federal government has said that they were going to hand out, it doesn't really help us," Mamer said.
Coronach's tourism sector is generally self-sufficient, he said — hosting approximately 800 visitors every year generates enough income to keep everything running smoothly. But this year, it's going to be a challenge.
"This year, our budget has sort of gone to hell because we don't have any income coming in," he said. "It's just starting to come in, but it won't be near what we had last year."
This year, many in the industry have had to start their seasons months later than they had planned, postpone them, or cancel entirely.
Jon Farber, CEO and owner of the annual electronic music festival Bass in the Bush, says any amount of funding would help fledgling events like his — held near the town of Porcupine Plain, about 240 kilometres east of Saskatoon — survive the pandemic.
This year's festival, which was supposed to happen in May, was indefinitely postponed this year because of the pandemic.
"We're grassroots … and we're trying to get it to a point where it can be sustainable," he said.
"It's already hard enough as it is in a good climate and environment for the tourism industry. But now with COVID and everything else, losing revenue after having put out income throughout the year to get ready, it's a concern."
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape how people spend, visit and travel, Bence says he expects Saskatchewan's tourism industry to thrive if given the opportunity.
"In all aspects of our tourism here in Saskatchewan, from local attractors to our Indigenous tourism activities, we've got a lot to offer … particularly in a post-COVID-19 environment," he said.
"People want what we have. They want to be able to enjoy wide-open spaces, since social distancing has become such a part of our psyche now."
Last week, Makowsky wrote an open letter to federal Minister of Economic Development Melanie Joly, calling the government's tourism funding decisions "outrageous."
"It is my expectation that there will be a more substantial announcement made in support of Western Canada in the coming days to ensure all regions in Canada receive equitable treatment through these unprecedented times," he wrote.
Joly's parliamentary secretary replied that businesses in Saskatchewan, including the tourism industry, do have access to federal support.
"The [regional relief and recovery fund] has already seen myriad applications from Saskatchewan's tourism business," said Winnipeg South MP Terry Duguid.