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B.C.’s new tourism minister wants to be ‘wind at the back’ of the sector

Lana Popham takes over tourism file after serving as agriculture minister for five years
B.C.’s new tourism minister, Lana Popham.

As a former ski racer, B.C.’s ski resorts have a special place in Lana Popham’s heart. Now, as British Columbia’s newest tourism minister, the 54-year-old sees these recreational destinations in a new light.

“I was a carded racer, so I did the circuit around B.C. and unfortunately broke my arm at Whistler—but despite that, I still have a lot of good memories,” said the NDP minister. “Ski hills have a huge place in my heart and I can’t wait to get out and do a tour of them again—maybe not racing this time.”

Popham gains the tourism, arts, culture and sport file after five years spent as B.C.’s agricultural minister, and as she continues to get her feet wet at a new ministry, she is committed to continuing the work built by her predecessor, Lisa Beare.

“My goodness, is it ever an interesting and exciting portfolio,” Popham said. “I spent five years in agriculture and food and now moving over to a ministry that has so many different pathways in it, my vision is to make sure that the government continues to be the wind at the back of all of our stakeholders.”

What does 2023 have in store for B.C.'s tourism industry?

Popham is fresh off of Destination Vancouver’s Christmas luncheon, where she got to meet 850 or so tourism and hospitality stakeholders from around the province. By and large, the message she was left with was one of hope.

“What I noticed meeting with 850 people is that there’s so much hope and people are feeling that this year, it is especially going to be an exciting year for returns,” she said. “We’ve seen the numbers start to recover in a great way, especially this past summer, so I think people are shedding the negativity of the pandemic as they see things picking up.”

While that hope is prevalent across the industry, Popham said the message differs slightly depending on which specific sector she’s speaking with. “We are finding that they have different needs depending on what part of tourism they’re coming from, and those are things we talk to them directly about,” she added.

One segment of the industry she said she’s excited to see grow further in the new year is culinary tourism, particularly as Vancouver and by extension British Columbia’s reputation grows with its first Michelin- starred restaurants added to the renowned dining guide in the fall.

“I’m really keen to see what we can do around culinary tourism and I know that Whistler has so many amazing restaurants and food producers up there, also a great farmers’ market,” Popham noted.

Although not as dire as in the past two years, when borders were mostly closed to foreign workers, Whistler continues to experience staffing challenges as demand for the resort rebounds. A sector that was already sounding the alarm on staff shortages in B.C. prior to the pandemic, B.C.’s restaurant industry still wrestles with attracting long- term employees, the consequence of a high-stress field that has not historically been known for its career prospects.

“The pandemic has really forced the restaurant industry to think about the industry in a different way. It’s a conversation that probably needed to happen anyway, so those are the silver linings after a really tough three years,” Popham said. “But there’s absolutely an opportunity to make the restaurant industry a full-time career and opportunities for advancement but that’s something the industry has to strategize about. We are excited and willing to be a partner on that with them.”

Whistler also stands to benefit from B.C.’s new Municipal and Regional District Tax (MRDT) of up to 2.5 per cent for “Major Events,” which was unveiled Oct. 31, for events like the upcoming Invictus Games, scheduled for Whistler and Vancouver in 2025.

This new tax will be time-limited and is separate from the MRDT rates that currently apply to short-term accommodations in locations across the province (including Whistler), and will be applied to major international tourism events that help bolster provincial tourism and the economy. Other considerations, according to the ministry, include: events that draw significant international visitation; provide broad media viewership and exposure to B.C. internationally; create sponsorship opportunities and revenues; involve partnership from multiple levels of government; and cannot be supported by any existing provincial or municipal program.

An example of one such existing program is the Resort Municipality Initiative, which supports 14 resort municipalities by offsetting the impacts of high visitation by diversifying tourism offerings and attracting visitors year-round. Allocations to the individual communities are not typically announced until early summer, so it’s unclear how much Whistler stands to receive in 2023, but in 2019, an ongoing $13 million in annual funding for RMI was established as part of the core budget of B.C.’s Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport.