Prior to COVID-19, tourism was one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. The tourism sector in Canada was the fifth-largest, responsible for one in 10 of Canadian jobs, $105 billion in revenues and 2.3 per cent of GDP.
Now, says Beth Potter, the industry is in crisis.
“Despite the slow recovery of some businesses, Canada’s tourism sector has remained stagnant,” says Potter, who recently took the reins as president & CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC). “The tourism economy has lost over half a million jobs, and unemployment in the sector has surpassed the national unemployment rate, according to a recent report by Destination Canada.”
The challenge, she says, is that tourism businesses, unlike other industries, are unable to pivot to online services and with different methods of revenue generation — including seasonal businesses — are outliers in many of the application requirements for current
“Tourism is one of the only sectors that impacts every riding in Canada and it is crucial that we support the sector through COVID-19 to ensure our economic standing and global competitiveness can return when restrictions are lifted.” Potter joined TIAC at a tumultuous time for the industry, which presented myriad challenges at both the personal (Potter is moving to Ottawa from Toronto after 21 years in the same house) and professional level.
She says timing, circumstances, challenge and opportunity all came into play in making the decision to move. “After 11 years at the helm off TIAO, I’m ready for new challenges — like taking on a national membership. The opportunity to grow and develop my skills working with a slightly larger team and working on national and international policy issues is very appealing to me.”
As with any new job, she says, there’s a lot to learn. “My advantage is that I am coming to the job armed with more than a decade of industry knowledge from my position at TIAO, including a little “inside” knowledge about TIAC having been a member, and at one point, a board member.”
The challenges, she adds, include getting to know the industry at the individual level without the ability to travel and working remotely. “I’d really like to be working shoulder to shoulder with the team. Added to that, our industry is in crisis and I firmly believe that I can help ensure that our suite of sectors is supported for recovery.”
Potter has been engaged at the global level for the past year, sitting as a member of the World Travel & Tourism Council’s COVID-19 Task Force and as a member of the Government Affairs Working Group. “I wanted to make sure I knew what was happening globally; to have a voice affecting new travel policies; and to make sure Canada was represented. I look forward to continuing this work as we move forward.”
With more than a decade of experience at the helm of TIAO, Potter is carrying many lessons with her to help transition to her new role.
“I’ve been actively listening to business owners about how the pandemic and resulting health restrictions have affected them for over a year and using those personal stories in my work on the advocacy front,” she says. “I’ve been able to accurately describe the financial challenges, the heartbreak as staff have had to be let go and the impact that the weight of uncertainty has had on mental health. Tourism business owners have been able to see themselves in the messages we take to government. Because of this, when we’ve needed information to back up a “political ask,” operators have stepped up. This is trust — and this is what I am bringing with me to TIAC.”
Looking ahead to the next three to six months, Potter says TIAC’s first priority is its members and its most important goal is leading the industry through and post COVID-19. “We’ve been advocating for the sector since the onset of the pandemic, and continue to do so.”
Long-term, Potter and her TIAC team hope to lead the Canadian tourism industry to be the most competitive in the world and to continue and strengthen TIAC’s ability to lead, advocate and effect change at both the national and global levels.
To do this, the association’s government asks have had to change somewhat since COVID-19 first impacted the industry. Potter says TIAC has been working with an industry- recovery committee — comprised of tourism leaders from all sectors, and from across Canada — to develop recommendations and government asks.
The association shared its plan with officials leading up to the April 19 federal budget and is calling on the federal government to provide a blueprint and conditions that are required before provincial/ territorial and international borders can re-open (i.e. one set of travel policies within Canada); to re-think quarantine rules; and to embrace innovation and new solutions for testing travellers before or after their journeys.
“A large portion of the 2021 Tourism Recovery Plan is based on supporting business solvency and focuses on immediate responses needed in current government-support programs, such as extending the CEWS and CERS supports to the end of the year for the hardest-hit sectors, and providing immediate liquidity for the aviation sector,” she explains.
In addition to the recommendations on liquidity and improving current support programs to include the hardest hit in the sector, Potter says TIAC is also asking for a tax incentive to Canadians for the 2021/2022 tax years to travel locally or within Canada; the development of a business events and recovery-funding program; top-up funding for Destination Canada to keep Canadian destinations top of mind, to support Destination Marketing Organizations and to entice the return of high-value travellers; the
re-instatement of the visitor GST-rebate program for international visitors; the re-introduction of the federally funded Marquee Tourism Events Program; and support for the tourism labour market and capacity building projects.
The Road to Recovery
With borders still closed to non-essential travel (as of publication date), many question whether plans are in place to promote domestic travel through co-op strategies, such as government incentives for Canadians to travel more in the country.
But while domestic travel is a crucial first step, Potter emphasises it will not bring the industry back to full scale without international revenue. “When restrictions are lifted, we encourage Canadians to support our industry and spend their tourism dollars at home. Recent research from Destination Canada found that if Canadians shift two-thirds of their planned spend on international leisure travel towards domestic tourism, it will make up for the forecast $19-billion shortfall currently facing our visitor economy — and help sustain 150,000 jobs.”
She says while recovery is forecast to take years, a significant increase in domestic travel can accelerate recovery by up to one year.
TIAC has been at the forefront of advocating for the industry since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to build on those accomplishments moving forward.
“TIAC has been advocating for the sector since the onset of the pandemic. We’ve continued and strengthened our relationships with government and policy officials and leaned on our industry leaders to form our working and recovery groups,” says Potter, adding the association has launched a few iterations of its recovery document.
“We were successful, through our work with the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses, in ensuring government understood that tourism was the first hit, the hardest hit and will be the last to recover. This was acknowledged in both the Speech from the Throne and the Fall Economic Statement. TIAC was successful in advocating for the February launch of the HASCAP program, and we continue to work closely with government on feedback from the industry.”
Despite recent challenges, Potter is adamant the industry will rebound and wants TIAC’s members to know she has their backs.
“Know that we hear you, that we have taken your plight to heart. Every conversation with government officials centres on you and the impact that the pandemic and resulting restrictions have had on your business, on you, on your family, on your staff and on your community.
“The road to recovery may not be straight, it may be long, it may be bumpy, but we will be here with you. Every. Step. Of. The. Way.