As another year of extraordinary change nears its end, tourism industry leaders from across the country gathered in Ottawa this week at the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s annual Tourism Congress. After three days of meetings, panels, firesides and hallway chats, several major themes emerged through this important national conversation about the current state and future prospects for our industry.
Differential recovery for the Tourism Industry
We are firmly in a recovery phase. That much is certain. The upward trajectory is clear in all parts of the country. But there is a more nuanced reality that must be considered when looking at the seemingly positive top-line numbers. One national figure does not account for the substantial differences that exist among our Canadian destinations, and particularly between the types of destinations. Throughout the pandemic, urban destinations have lagged significantly behind non-urban destinations.
Canada’s resort and rural destinations have vastly outperformed its urban cities. Over the past few months, strong demand for leisure travel by Canadians has powered the recovery in Toronto. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we are still far behind pre-pandemic levels of visitation, and the leisure demand is expected to soften as more destinations open up to Canadian travelers and the urge to travel further afield takes over in the coming years. At the same time, as domestic leisure demand wanes, the U.S. and international markets are not yet at a level of recovery to replace those travellers. Business transient travel has barely returned. And the major business events that form the foundation of business for Toronto are tracking well behind pace in the coming years.
So indeed there is a positive upward trajectory across most of the country and Toronto looks ahead to a strong year in 2023. But there are still significant headwinds for our continued recovery when looking at the long-term picture.
Canada’s competitive position
Compared with this same gathering a year earlier, there was considerable relief that many of the regulatory barriers placed on travel had been removed, including random testing, vaccination and quarantine mandates and the use of ArriveCan. However, as we have observed from our own discussions with clients, it is clear tourism businesses across the country are struggling with the reputational hangover and lingering challenges that have many travellers still viewing Canada as a challenging place to visit and to come to for a meeting or event.
An urgent challenge is the backlog and long processing times for visas to travel to Canada, for those countries where a visa is still required. Numerous meeting planners whose meetings were held in Canada this year report that many – in one specific case, hundreds – of delegates were unable to come to the event because their visa was not processed in time. The short-term impact is significant as those visitors don’t come to our destinations. But the long-term impact is even greater. Meeting planners now worry that choosing Canada means some of their delegates may not be able to come, and the access and welcome that have long been hallmarks of Canadian cities like Toronto is now working in reverse as a negative, causing planners to choose to meet elsewhere.
The industry continues to grapple with large gaps in workforce, making recovery more difficult. Even as demand grows, the ability of tourism businesses to meet that demand stands as an ongoing challenge. Many of the underlying issues causing the workforce gap predate the pandemic, but of course the pandemic deepened the problem exponentially.
There is a clear consensus that the solutions to this challenge are complex, and include strategies to expedite immigration, as well as addressing the low-perceived appeal of the sector for youth and new entrants.
A clear theme throughout the conference was the role our industry can and must play in addressing climate change and the opportunity for more sustainable forms of travel and tourism. Sustainability in its ecological sense is an obvious urgency throughout our economy, and various sessions and discussions identified ways our sector can continue – and accelerate – its path towards greater reduction and diversion of waste and important transitions to more efficient forms of energy.
Sustainability is also vital in its community sense – ensuring the lives of residents in our communities are not only not harmed or burdened by visitation, but in fact enriched. Visitor spending brings new wealth and jobs into our communities and a more holistic perspective of the net benefits to communities will help our sector build and adapt in more sustainable ways.
This is particularly relevant as the industry forges deeper connections with Indigenous tourism businesses. Tourism in all regions of the country can play a key role in enabling Indigenous communities to share their stories - in their ways and with their voices. Destinations that work purposefully and genuinely with Indigenous tourism businesses will not only see business benefits through the added appeal of compelling experiences, but also elevate community sustainability and prosperity.
One lesson stands out above them all: Vitally important discussions like these are why we meet in the first place. It’s why our sector helps fuel every sector of the economy and society. The challenges we face, we face together. And by coming together to meet, discuss, confront, exchange and network, we move closer to solutions – all while proving why these events are so important in the first place.