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Tourism sector rolls out road map to boost visitor numbers to pre-pandemic levels

The tourism industry hasrolled out a road map it hopes will bring more visitors to Canada after the bruising it took during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the country’s largest annual tourism convention being held in Edmonton, Destination Canada and the federal government unveiled a plan Thursday that aims to extend the travel season, increase the length of stays and attract more locals, foreigners and business people to a broader range of sites.

A warming planet means wildfires are warding off visitors and milder winters are wreaking havoc on ski resorts. But the hotter weather has also opened a way to draw travellers in the spring and fall that could fill hotels and tour buses into the shoulder seasons, Destination Canada CEO Marsha Walden said.

“We would love to retain our workforce longer into the season. And normally the product doesn't need to be hugely adapted to take in a new season like fall and approaching into winter,” Walden said in an interview.

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“We really need to lean heavily on expanding further into the shoulders.”

Building out attractions into year-round vacation spots is also an option, with resorts from Quebec's Mont Tremblant to Ontario's Blue Mountain showcasing how summer activities can lure visitors beyond the traditional ski crowd.

"When you think Whistler, what do you think — you think skiing, right? But Whistler in the summer, it's also pretty amazing," said Tourism Minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada in an interview.

Meanwhile, more drawn-out getaways would amount to millions more in the coffers of hospitality companies.

“Having people stay longer — having people spend more money — is just good for tourism for us in Canada,” she said. Marketing campaigns that focus on “getting travellers to say, ‘If you’re going to come, you’d better stay a couple days more, because Canada is big,’” comprise part of the plan.

The federal strategy also looks to promote a broader range of destinations, from Indigenous-owned projects to ecotourism spots off the beaten path.

Business trips continue to lag behind the return of leisure travel, a post-pandemic hangover the plan aims to address as well.

By 2030, the goal is to boost Canada’s spot in a World Economic Forum ranking on tourism development after the country slipped out of the top 10 for the first time in 2022.

Tourism has come roaring back from pandemic lows, but operators say the sector has yet to reach pre-COVID levels and debt remains a hefty burden for thousands of small businesses across the country.

International visitor numbers last year sat below figures from four years earlier, with tourists from the U.S. at 85 per cent of 2019 levels and those from further afield at 78 per cent, according to Destination Canada. However, nearly four out of every five dollars generated from tourism comes from a Canadian, Walden said.

The industry brought in more than $109 billion in revenue in 2023, about four per cent more than in 2019 but significantly less in real terms after accounting for inflation, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.

Beth Potter, who heads the association, has called on the federal government to create a new low-interest loan program and temporary foreign worker stream, both specific to the tourism industry.

She said she has seen no signs of movement on those fronts in Ottawa.

Beating back Canada's growing reputation as a country ablaze marks yet another challenge.

"People thought the whole country was on fire," Martinez Ferrada said of last summer's wildfire evacuations. "We made the New York Times front page."

The minister highlighted a marketing campaign by British Columbia in the fall that made an "urgent appeal" to residents there and in Alberta and Washington to explore areas recently affected by wildfires.

Even a month of lost revenue can be "devastating," added Walden.

The sector's recovery continues to trail that of the broader business world.

The number of active tourism-linked businesses sat slightly below pre-pandemic levels as of December, while the number of businesses overall surpassed 2019 figures, data from Destination Canada showed.

Across all sectors, two in three small- and medium-sized enterprises still held pandemic debt at the end of last year, with an average of $107,700, according to a Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey of 3,148 members. Out of 14 sectors surveyed, operators in hospitality and transportation were among the most pessimistic about the coming year. Only retail scored worse.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2024.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press