Cost of Living

How Canada's tourism industry is trying to salvage summer 2020

Despite provincial reopening plans, post-COVID Canada isn't open for business yet when it comes to tourism. So what will 'high season' will look like when half your customers can't cross the border?

COVID-19 prevents half the tourism economy's customers from crossing the border

Michael Gatherall, owner of Gatheralls Puffin and Whale Watch in Bay Bulls, Nfld., has teamed up with nearby rivals to try and stave-off having to close due to a drop in tourism. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Canada's tourism industry is facing a reckoning as the summer season starts, with many businesses facing either complete shut down or limited operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some tourism businesses are resorting to unprecedented measures, such as two rival Newfoundland boat tour companies joining forces.

"You get lemons, you gotta make the best to try to make lemonade out of it," said Michael Gatherall, owner of Gatheralls Puffin and Whale Watch in Bay Bulls, N.L. He's teamed up with nearby rival O'Brien's Boat Tours to stay alive this season.

Members of the O'Brien and Gatherall families have merged together for the summer, to form GO Tours and put to rest a longstanding rivalry. (O'Briens Whale and Bird Tours/Facebook)

According to Gatherall, in February he was expecting the summer of 2020 to be one of their best ever. 

COVID-19 changed all of that. And it's a problem across the country.

Further west, the Stratford Festival attracts around half a million visitors, both domestic and international, to the small city of Stratford in southwestern Ontario.

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the theatre stages are dark. The festival suspended its 2020 season.

"Everything we do is about being shoulder to shoulder," said Anita Gaffney, the festival's executive director.

"So the prospect of a virulent disease keeping us away from one another has really turned our business upside down."

Billions of dollars at stake

According to industry associations, the tourism sector in Canada generates over $100 billion in economic activity yearly and supports 1.8 million jobs across the country.

In an open letter, a coalition of travel and tourism businesses called the Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable says that the federal and provincial governments must ease public health lockdown measures to save the industry's summer season.

"Like you, we believe personal safety is critical. However, many of the travel restrictions currently in place are simply too broad or unnecessary," it stated.

Among the coalition's demands is the removal of interprovincial travel bans, such as those in place in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the three territories. 

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The Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable is also calling for an end to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for those entering Canada.

An expert in travel and tourism told CBC Radio's The Cost of Living the industry lobby may have a case if the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada and many other countries around the word is winding down.

"If Canada does not reopen any time soon, the danger is that the summer season will go by fast and operators, suppliers will not be able to make any money in the summer," said Frederic Dimanche, the director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University.

Frederic Dimanche does not believe the United States should make the cut if Canada opens its borders to international tourists. (CBC)

"And we know that the summer is the time of year when they make most of their income."

Measures such as temperature checks at airports and hotels, physical distancing and hygiene practices such as rigorous hand washing could allow potential tourists to travel to and within Canada safely, added Dimanche.

The U.S. poses an issue, says expert

A complication for Canadian tourism is the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, said Dimanche. 

American tourists make up, by far, the largest number of international tourists visiting Canada yearly. 

But the United States also has a very high number of COVID-19 cases relative to the rest of the world — and the outbreak shows no sign of slowing down south of the border. 

Dimanche says that while a case can be made to open up Canada to tourists from many countries, he does not believe our biggest source of tourists makes the cut.

"We know that the COVID-19 crisis is not in control in the United States. We actually know that it keeps growing, whereas it seems to be in control in Canada," Dimanche said.

Federal government promoting travel within Canada

Whether the federal government will move to meet the demands of the open letter is unclear for now.

In a statement to CBC Radio's The Cost of Living, the office of Melanie Joly, the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, said the government has supported Canada's tourism industry through benefits such as the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA).

Federal Economic Development Minister Melanie Joly is pictured in a video conference in April 2020. (CBC)

However, the ministry's statement did not directly address whether the federal government would take action on interprovincial travel bans or open the country to international tourists.

"Looking ahead to the summer, Minister Joly has recently announced over $110 million in support for Canadian tourism. This includes $30 million for domestic marketing through Destination Canada, our national tourism marketing agency," the minister's office wrote.

"While it has always promoted Canada abroad, which is what the money was originally earmarked for, COVID-19 has spurred us to refocus Destination Canada towards domestic travel, one of the first times it will actually be marketing Canada to Canadians."

Too late for some, like Stratford

But for tourism draws like the Stratford Festival, the pandemic has already put an end to the entire season, as well as to the tourism dollars Stratford would have seen.

Ontario's Stratford Festival normally hosts 500,000 paying customers each season, but it has cancelled the entire 2020 season due to COVID-19. (Erin Samuell/Stratford Festival) (Erin Samuell/Stratford Festival)

The focus for festival executive director Gaffney is to now ensure the festival can survive and bring tourists to Stratford next season. It's asking both levels of government for $8 million in some combination of a grant and a loan.

"We need support now like we've never needed support before, and an investment in Stratford today is going to pay dividends when the tourism industry starts to come back," said Gaffney.

Written and produced by Richard Raycraft.
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