Tourism advocates seek to make sector’s recovery an election issue

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KINGSTON — Tourism advocates are pushing to have help for the industry become an issue in the Ontario provincial election.

After more than two years of the pandemic, the tourism sector is slowly recovering, but it will need more help to fully recover, advocates said.

“Tourism was hit first, hit hardest and will be the last to recover,” said Krista LeClair, executive director of Kingston Accommodation Partners, which in tandem with Tourism Kingston promotes the city’s tourism sector.

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“I think there are so many big social issues going on right now. You know, we see cost of living, we see housing, we see record numbers of homelessness and vulnerable populations. So I think you know these pieces are being addressed across parties, but tourism really needs to get our voice heard, too.”

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conference Board of Canada ranked Kingston as the fourth-most-vulnerable city in the country to the economic effects of the pandemic. Local economic development officials said almost a quarter of the city’s workforce was in sectors considered highly vulnerable, including the tourism, restaurant and accommodation sectors.

Kingston’s tourism sector in 2019 attracted about 4.63 million visitors a year to the city and was worth around $533 million to the local economy.

In January 2021, a report from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce showed that 58 per cent of businesses in the Kingston-Pembroke region were forced to terminate employees.

In the last four months of 2020, the unemployment rate for the Kingston area was 8.16 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Despite the reopening, the effects of the pandemic linger for the 200,000 businesses and 400,000 people working in tourism-related businesses across the province.

“We still need to see a welcoming message to all those that want to want to return to Ontario,” LeClair said. “Ontario is a premier tourism destination, but people are afraid to come.”

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According to the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, one in four tourism businesses in the province are generating less than 20 per cent of their pre-pandemic revenue.

Almost three-quarters of tourism businesses or their owners have taken on personal or commercial debt while trying to make it through the pandemic, according to association.

Most Ontario tourism businesses don’t expect to be financially stable until 2025, the association stated.

In April, as the election neared, the association launched a marketing campaign to draw attention to the industry’s struggles.

The tourism sector is calling for remaining COVID-19 travel restrictions to be lifted and the new three-year staycation tax credit be made permanent.

“For a very long time we’ve had a travel deficit where more people leave than come to Ontario, and so I think this is a great way to get people to travel among their own province as well when they’re planning their travels for the year.”

LeClair said she would also like to see support for the tourism sector’s efforts to promote business and conference travel in the of-peak seasons

“We have seen, and we’ve seen in Kingston, that come summer leisure travel came back last year,” she said. “It’ll be back this year. It’s fantastic for our community. We see a lot of visitors come to Kingston, but it’s an illusion of recovery because that’s only two months of the year, maybe three.”

Finding workers to fill job vacancies is also a problem for many tourism businesses.

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The tourism association’s pre-election survey of member businesses showed almost 70 per cent were concerned about finding and keeping new employees. More than 70 per cent of retain vote said the rising cost of living was making it difficult to employees.

Tourism hasn’t had a high profile in this election, in part, because there have been recent announcements of government support for the tourist sector, Kathy Brocka professor at Queen’s University’s school of policy studies, said.

“I think, given that some grants are in place, it’s probably lowered it on the list of priorities because it’s something that has been done,” Brock said.

In April, the federal government committed $3 million to support Kingston-area tourism companies, part of a $68.5-million support package for Ontario’s tourism industry.

But the tourism sector still faces serious challenges in getting remaining border restrictions lifted. Getting those raised barriers could offer a rare point of agreement for Ontario’s political parties to present a united front in lobbying the federal government, Brock said.

The restrictions are no longer effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19, she said, and give potential visitors the impression that the virus is not under control.

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