(Northern Vancouver Island Tourism/Steven Fines)

(Northern Vancouver Island Tourism/Steven Fines)

OP-ED: 1 year into pandemic, B.C.’s tourism sector hopes for a light at the end of the tunnel

Only about 17 per cent of businesses have been operating as usual in B.C.

By Anthony Everett – Chair of BC Regional Tourism Secretariat

It is approximately one year since COVID-19 started to take hold in British Columbia and its impact has been devastating on many sectors – including tourism and its more than 19,000 operators across the province.

The BC Regional Tourism Secretariat and its five regional associations have a decades-long relationships with more than 8,000 tourism operators who are represented in the North, Cariboo, Thompson-Okanagan, Kootenays and Vancouver Island. As a trusted advisor to the regions, the Secretariat continues to place a high priority on helping businesses adapt and respond to evolving health guidelines and assist them in accessing supports.

Since last March, the Secretariat has conducted a series of surveys of tourism businesses in the five regions in order to collect information on the evolving impact of the pandemic and help inform government decision-making.

The overall findings are staggering. While there have been fluctuations over the course of the year, on average, only about 17 per cent of businesses have been operating as usual, about 53 per cent operating at reduced capacity, and during the past year about 30 per cent of businesses have closed at some point. Meanwhile, since July, on average 39 per cent of businesses report losing 50 per cent or more of their revenue compared to the same month in 2019.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Secretariat established the BC Tourism Resiliency Network, making available to operators, a team of experts in health and safety, human resources, finance and strategic planning, and digital marketing services – to provide advice and assistance. Over the past year, the number of contacts between the Resiliency Network and businesses, totals more than 28,000 – in the form of one-on-one discussions, participation in seminars, ideas labs and assistance in accessing federal or provincial programs.

Through this process, the opportunity for operators to share ideas, questions and potential solutions with other business owners has also been valuable – because they recognize it’s a fight they are all in together. Throughout, they have shown heart, grit and innovation – in many cases, creating a new retail line or redefining their business to remain viable.

This challenge requires that all levels of government, regional and local tourism and economic development agencies, continue to pull together in the same way, working in unison to support the sector.

Demand for Tourism Resiliency Network support remains strong – but success or impact can’t be measured by numbers alone because every one of these numbers represents a mother, a father or individual whose livelihood is at stake. But when these people say this support has “offered hope” or “helped keep our head above water”, that is what truly underlines how important this effort continues to be.

No one can say with any certainty what may unfold over the next several months. But paramount will be our ongoing and collective commitment to flattening the curve and seeing the vaccination program fully up and running – and completed. Even though now is not the time to travel, our hope is that as we get closer to summer and warmer weather, it may signal a turning point, some measure of relief from COVID and as a result, a more active tourism sector.

A comment from one tourism operator reflects the reality for many, suggesting the key for his business is to survive long enough is to get past this difficult period, regroup and move forward – adding, if his business is able to do that, it will eventually be fine. And that is our hope for every business trying to manage their way through this unprecedented period.

Anthony Everett is Chair of the BC Regional Tourism Secretariat, a collaboration between five regional destination management organizations representing more than 8,000 tourism businesses and organizations.

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