TORONTO – Canada Day kicked off the unofficial start of summer, and the tourism sector is hoping the first season in three years largely free of COVID-19 restrictions will give a much-needed boost to a pandemic-hit industry .
It has been slow to rebound as new variants of COVID-19 and public health measures have deterred domestic and foreign travellers, but as cases decline and restrictions lift there are signs of recovery in all the countries.
Some tour operators are scrambling to find staff to meet a surge in demand and hotels are reporting occupancy rates close to pre-pandemic levels.
“This summer will be the summer of recovery,” said Catherine Callary, vice-president of Ottawa Tourism.
According to Statistics Canada, GDP for Canada’s tourism industry fell nearly 50% in 2020, compared to an economy-wide decline of 5.4%.
And while there is optimism, the most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that the recovery is far from complete.
Domestic tourism activity, which compiles data such as travel and travel spending, was down 20% in March from 2019. And international tourism activity was 57% below pre-pandemic levels .
Callary estimates that Ottawa has lost $3 billion in the tourism industry during the pandemic. Demand for hotel rooms, however, has rebounded and is now about 15% below pre-pandemic levels, she said.
“Tour operators will not be able to recover lost revenue over the past two years. It is not income that they can recover. But we can move on, we can recover,” she said.
Off Newfoundland, tourist-laden whale-watching boats are back in Atlantic waters. Mike Gatherall, manager of Gatherall’s Puffin and Whale Watch south of St. John’s, said business was booming.
The 38-year-old family business had a banner year in 2019, Gatherall said. But 2022 exceeds these figures.
Bookings were up nearly 40%, he said.
“(This year) so far has been quite busy. A very healthy rebound, certainly, for our operation,” he said.
Government support and careful financial planning have helped the company retain staff throughout the pandemic, Gatherall said. But challenges remain.
The increase in the cost of fuel makes the operation of the boats more expensive. And he says a shortage of rental cars could make it difficult for potential customers to make the trip from the city to the rural coast.
In the Toronto area, hotel occupancy exceeded 80% in June for the first time since the pandemic began, Destination Toronto executive vice-president Andrew Weir said.
While leisure travel is expected to drive the recovery this summer, he said it could be years before the city sees the full return of large-scale conferences. These events are a big boost for local businesses, whether they’re florists, caterers or audiovisual companies, Weir said.
“Until those two engines are running at full throttle, the visitor economy will not have fully recovered,” he said.
Jason Kucherawy, a longtime Toronto walking tour guide, said his company, Tour Guys, was inundated with requests in April from local school groups organizing excursions for May and June.
He had to turn down some requests this spring as he rushed to find guides, after the company reverted to skeletal surgery during the pandemic.
The company held tours in Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto for 15,000 people in 2019, a record year for the 14-year-old company. In 2021, only 500 people attended a tour.
But so far 1,000 people have joined a tour in May and June alone, he said.
“And we are just entering our peak tourist season. So I know for the future we have a lot of bookings for July and August as people are planning their trips to Canada. And most of our business, for us, is the Americans. That’s three-quarters of our business,” said Kucherawy, who is president of the Tourist Guide Association of Toronto.
U.S. residents made 759,600 trips to Canada in April, eight times more than in April 2021 but less than half of the trips in 2019, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures on international arrivals.
American visitors are also slowly starting to return to one of the Prairies’ most iconic tourist attractions, West Edmonton Mall general manager Danielle Woo said. But with inflation raising the cost of travel, she said the mall has seen much of its business from the “staycation” crowd, either from Alberta or neighboring provinces.
“I would say at this point we’re definitely where we were or better than we were pre-pandemic in terms of what the mall looks like as a whole,” Woo said.
Skwachàys Lodge in Vancouver, an 18-room boutique hotel and art gallery run by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, made just one reservation in January 2021, said Caroline Phelps, who runs the program. artists in residence at the lodge.
The hotel catered primarily to out-of-province guests before the pandemic, but the return of cruise liners to the B.C. coast has attracted a new group of tourists, she said.
“For the rest of the summer, we are booked. Even on weekdays,” Phelps said. “We have a lot of cruise travelers staying.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 28, 2022.