Editorial: Disastrous season predictions call for immediate tourism aid

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A leaked Destination Canada study prepared by McKinsay and Company suggests that more than 61,000 tourism businesses could close within two months, leading to more than 1.7 million layoffs. The same report indicates that more than 60 percent of tourism-based businesses are projected to run out of cash should this year’s summer season not materialize. That was as of March 27—and the outlook has not gotten any better in the interim.

The study suggests that as much as $15 billion may be needed at the national level to barely hold the line in an industry that is a mainstay for youth and students and which, until the advent of COVID-19, was showing increasing promise of helping to create a more sustainable economy among many remote and Northern Indigenous communities.

That isn’t small potatoes to be sure, but when it is taken into account that tourism contributes more than $5 billion annually in tax revenues into provincial government coffers, larger than the combined economic contribution of agriculture, forestry and mining combined, alarm bells should be ringing and ringing loudly in the halls of power. If the current stimulus measures are to be paid for in the long run, the tourism industry must play an integral role in that fiscal recovery.

There is no other industry, taken as a whole, that will take as hard a hit as the tourism industry from the impact of COVID-19 and in an industry that has typically struggled (given many of our short summer seasons) to maintain experienced staff and resources, this setback will prove the death knell for many a promising endeavour. 

Among the hardest to be hit will be Indigenous tourism, where much of the product development is still in its infancy. But for all regions (mostly rural) that depend on tourism to maintain and improve vital, shall we even say essential services, this untimely collapse in the tourism industry will prove to be a slap backwards from which it will take years to recover, even when things return to a semblance of normalcy.

Despite the worst of the doom and gloom predictions facing tourism, the industry and our economies will come out the other side of this global catastrophe. The question is, what will we have to work with when those sunny days return? As manufacturing declined in Ontario, tourism was on the rise and in recognition of that fact led the provincial government into taking concrete steps in order to strengthen and improve the potential of this multi-billion dollar golden goose. It makes no sense whatsoever for the federal and provincial governments to now turn their backs in neglect and let the tourism industry starve.

While it certainly does make sense to freeze marketing efforts aimed at drawing people to the North, given the undesirable side effects of unrestricted travel into rural regions that are ill-equipped to cope with any spike in ICU admissions, that does not mean it makes sense to let the tourism industry wither and die on the vine when it shows such potential for lifting economically disadvantaged regions out of the doldrums.

There are few industries that can bounce back with any speed should their essential infrastructure be fundamentally disrupted, and tourism is certainly not one of those industries so blessed. But tourism would be well poised to benefit from pent up demand once the economic keel has been righted if it can retain the product base. It is of vital importance to the future of Ontario’s provincial economy that tourism infrastructure be maintained to be ready for those opportunities. This is particularly true for rurally based operations such as those to be found on Manitoulin Island and throughout the North.

Many people will continue to be understandably skittish of travelling to densely packed urban centres and the less crowded rural vacation and recreational opportunities have products tailor-made for that new paradigm. But the product will need to survive for that to happen.

There will be immense pressure from large, urban based industries seeking aid from the various levels of government, but it is in the tiny, largely mom and pop tourism operators who could raise the boats of the Northern economies in a sustainable and long-term manner.

It is vitally important to the Ontario economy that all levels of government step up to the plate to provide meaningful supports in order to preserve the tourism industry.