B.C.’s tourism industry prepares for a bleak summer

This month was supposed to be the start of the busiest cruise season in Metro Vancouver history, but the cruise industry — and the province’s tourism industry as a whole — is looking at a much more subdued season altogether due to COVID-19.

“It’s going to be devastating — there’s no question,” says Nancy Small.

Small is the CEO of Tourism Richmond and co-chair of the Metro Vancouver Tourism and Hospitality Industry Response and Recovery Task Force, an umbrella group representing organizations across the travel and tourism industry.

According to the task force, in 2018, B.C.’s tourism industry brought in $20.5 billion in revenue, and contributed 161,500 jobs to the economy.

She says there have already been huge losses to the sector: over 40 hotels in Metro Vancouver, or 35 per cent of hotel rooms in Vancouver, have shut down. Restaurants, which have been limited to take-out and delivery, are reporting 80 per cent revenue reductions. Large scale conventions and conferences have been cancelled or postponed.

But smaller operators are also feeling the trickle-down effects.

Erian Baxter, who runs a kayak rental company in Deep Cove and two other locations, says April would have been a record month for her business had she opened. 

“Easter was so beautiful, I truly did actually cry on the Thursday beforehand,” Baxter said.

She’s also forgone hiring the 120 seasonal workers she usually does at this time of year, instead poring over government programs to see whether they would qualify for any benefits.

“July and August are two-thirds of our business and that’s going to be completely different this year.”

Cruise ship passengers pass through Ogden Point in Victoria, in October, 2019. The tourism industry in B.C. is highly interconnected, as many smaller operators rely on cruise ship tourists for their business. (CHEK News)

Another operator, Catarina Sjoblom, who runs a horse-drawn carriage business in Victoria, B.C., says she is heavily reliant on the cruise ship industry for business.

This year, there has been none.

“It’s not like we can get back to work in September or October because we do rely on the summer season for our money to get us through the year,” Sjoblom said. 

Sjoblom says she has enough capital to get through the next year, and was able to re-home some of her horses on farms across Vancouver Island — “the horse community just stepped up,” she says — but the future is bleak. 

“If this goes on for 18 months to two years, you know, it’s going to devastate a lot of my staff,” Sjoblom said. 

Small says these stories illustrate how interconnected the tourism industry is in B.C. 

“I really feel for people like Catarina who are affected by this through absolutely no fault of anybody, it’s just the situation we’re all in,” Small said.

Her task force has been communicating with the federal and provincial governments about what they can do to support the industry.

It’s calling for help through an enhanced wage subsidy program, and greater availability of funding — through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), for example. It’s also seeking an extension of the CEBA repayment period, and an increase in the non-repayable portion of those loans.

Small is hopeful, but cautious, about what the future holds.

“We’re a resilient industry … We’ve encountered issues in the past, but nothing like this.”

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

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