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Tourism industry optimistic for Alberta COVID-19 reopening plans

“We are missing the international travel badly. Until the borders are open, it will be a very tough road to recovery. … We are very hopeful for next year that international travellers will come back. A lot of travellers are waiting for the border to open to be able to travel again.”

CANMORE – There’s optimism in the tourism sector following the announcement of plans to reopen Alberta as soon as early July.

The industry – which the Bow Valley heavily relies on economically – has largely spoken in favour of the new details that could see significant numbers of domestic travel allowed, following the devastating past 16 months for tourism workers and businesses.

“They are optimistic about Alberta’s plan for recovery and we know that wide open spaces will be in demand this summer,” said Rachel Ludwig, the interim CEO of the Tourism Canmore Kananaskis. “We are inviting Albertans and Canadians to come and experience the Canadian Rockies and Canmore and Kananaskis.”

While there is optimism, there is also a recognition that the spending levels this summer are likely to be about 50 per cent of the 2019 level and the industry is likely to not fully recover until 2024.

While domestic travel is being pushed across the country, until the international borders reopen again, tourism-related businesses are likely to be impacted.

“We are missing the international travel badly," Ludwig said. "Until the borders are open, it will be a very tough road to recovery. … We are very hopeful for next year that international travellers will come back. A lot of travellers are waiting for the border to open to be able to travel again.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced new plans that could see the province fully open by early July, depending on the level of vaccination rates and number of hospitalizations.

By June 1, hospitalizations were to be fewer than 800, and 50 per cent of Albertans 12 and older having received their first vaccine dose.

Stage two will move forward on Thursday (June 10) as the target of 60 per cent of Albertans having their first dose and hospitalizations at less than 500 was achieved on May 29. If 70 per cent of Albertans have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, all remaining public health restrictions would be lifted.

The ambitious plans are far sooner than other Canadian provinces, but ultimately put the stages up to residents and could assist the struggling tourism industry.

“Largely, the message was the recovery is in the hands of Albertans at this point with the three-stage plan. … I feel really inspired and confident with already over 50 per cent eligible Albertans vaccinated,” Alisha Reynolds, the board chair of the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta, said at a virtual town hall during Tourism Week.

The province also announced hotels and lodging providers will be allowed to keep the tourism levy collected from room nights between April 1 and June 30. Short-term rentals were also to begin paying the levy on April 1 and are also part of the abatement.

Doug Schweitzer, the minister of jobs, economy and innovation, said in a release that with the industry still struggling, the continued hiatus on the levy was necessary. 

“With the vaccination rollout well underway there is hope on the horizon, but the reality is that COVID-19’s impact on our tourism industry is still being felt,” he said. 

The tourism levy added about $89 million to provincial coffers in 2019. The province forecasted $92 million in 2020, but collected roughly $25 million before the pandemic was declared. The last budget estimated it’ll take until 2023 to return to about $90 million being collected.

It’s estimated the move will help the sector free up about $8 million to continue operations and employ staff, the province announced.

The abatement originally ran from March 1 to Dec. 31 of last year, but was extended to March 31 before this latest announcement.

The Alberta government also extended the small and medium enterprise relaunch grant to June 30. The program is designed to help businesses, cooperatives and not-for-profits with fewer than 500 employees who have been financially impacted due to the pandemic.

Businesses are eligible to receive up to $10,000.

Travel Alberta and Indigenous Tourism Alberta signed a three-year partnership to help the Indigenous tourism industry. The deal will see the two organizations receive a combined $7.75 million in the next three years.

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy is also set to expire on June 30, but Beth Potter – the president and CEO of Tourism Industry Association of Canada – said there’s hope it could be extended into November to further help the tourism sector.

“Our industry has to be able to get back to work the way other industries have," Potter said. "We are going to need an extension to this program. … We’re hoping to see it extended into 2022. You can’t cut off the funding and keep the borders closed. It’s one or the other.”

Marsha Walden, president and CEO of Destination Canada, noted it could be as late as 2024 before the tourism sector returns to its pre-COVID-19 2019 levels.

“That’s a long slow climb," she said. "We will see an immediate lift in domestic recovery as well as international in drive. Anything that is within the six to eight hour drive from your destination will recover first. It should be robust and quick and within two years.”

According to statistics from TIAC, the tourism economy accounts for roughly two per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product and employs about 1.8 million people. In Alberta, it’s estimated tourism contributes about $10 billion annually to the economy and brings more than 36 million visitors to the province, according to statistics from Invest Alberta.

Travel Alberta also estimates about 68,800 jobs are tourism-related and there were about 20,000 tourism-based businesses in 2018. The Alberta government also prioritized the tourism sector in its recent budget, which aims to contribute $20 billion a year by 2030 to the province.

Locally, Tourism Canmore Kananaskis is offering free basic marketing services this year to help promote and create digital strategies. It also has the Hope for Hospitality initiative to provide gift cards to local tourism and hospitality frontline workers laid off during COVID-19.

Ludwig said allowing domestic travel will help local businesses and a new campaign is aiming to help put emphasis on friends and family connecting once again, as well as prioritizing respect for the community spaces.

“We want them to respect our community, respect out surroundings and also spend to help the providers such as restaurants and food and beverage and hotels," she said. “It will help immensely. We are working together to inspire Canadian travellers to come to our destinations. … We know that visiting friends and family is ranking really high as a travelling motivator right now. 

“Our campaign this year is called ‘your favourite people, your favourite places.’ It combines very well the natural spaces we have with the urge to visit with friends and family to reunite with one another after over a year of the pandemic.”