The Northern B.C. tourism industry is in dire straits and will need help from the provincial government to recover from the staggering losses brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
Two weeks ago the Tourism Industry of BC, which represents 19,000 tourism and hospitality businesses and 300,000 workers, applied for a $680 million stimulus package that would come out of $1.5 billion recovery fund set aside by the B.C. government.
That application for funding was the topic of discussion last week in a digital town hall meeting with tourism stakeholders hosted by Tourism Prince George to hear concerns over business lost due to pandemic travel restrictions and discuss ways to stimulate the industry and encourage more travelers to come to the region to take advantage of city amenities and the region’s unspoiled natural areas.
“We have some great strategies already in place, there’s a 10-year plan for destination development that northern BC and all the communities in the northeast and northwest have worked out, with Prince George in the middle, and that needs to be funded,” said Tourism Prince George CEO Tracey McBride.
“I think it’s a good time to do it during COVID. Start working on your infrastructure and signage and experience development so that you’re already ahead of the game when people start to come again. If we could spend some money and time on creating new experiences, addressing shortages on signage, paving parking lots and making better trailheads, those are the kind of things we could be working on while we’re waiting for people to travel.”
McBride revealed in the meeting that Tourism New Brunswick has instituted a rebate program for residents of that province that will pay 20 per cent of their travel expenses within the province up to $1,000 per person. Eligible expenses include overnight accommodations, food and drink, activities and entrance fees, and vehicle rentals, ferry and parking fees.
Quebec is considering a similar rebate program for its residents and McBride is convinced to would work for BC, keeping tourist dollars in the province.
“It’s to help stimulate domestic travel in their province,” said McBride. “We’re looking at programs like that for British Columbians. If people are challenged with their budget it would be a great way to get them out and reward them for traveling.
“The nice thing about Prince George is we do have some very affordable staycation packages we have created. Unlike some areas that are a little more cost-prohibitive, we’re not.”
The BC tourism industry projects a best-case-scenario $14.8 billion decline in revenue this year, as compared to 2018 when the tourism sector brought $20.4 billion in spending and put $4.5 billion of tax revenue to the province.
The Northern BC Tourism Association (NBCTA) has been conducting regular surveys with local businesses in the region to gain an understanding of how they are weathering the pandemic storm. NBCTA has also launched a resiliency program to connect with local businesses and here some of the unique challenges northern-based businesses face and help tourism operators walk through government assistance programs.
One of the roundtable discussion participants suggested the province should consider relaxing the 50-person crowd size limit for public meetings and sporting events in the region, where the virus has largely been contained. From January, right through Thursday, just 36 cases in the northern Interior had been confirmed, with no deaths, and there were no positive cases in the previous 14 days.
“Maybe it should be looked at from a regional perspective as well,” said McBride. “Other jurisdictions like Alberta have started to open up a little bit larger meeting spaces as long as they can be done very safely and socially distanced.
“From the municipal perspective, a lot of (the municipalities) run the arenas and all of big civic centre venues but they’re never usually able to receive any kind of grant support, yet they’re so integral to hosting meetings and some of that economic impact that is felt in every community, especially in the north. That 50-person capacity makes it hard to operate without a loss.”
BC started Phase 3 of its recovery plan on June 24, which gave British Columbians the go-ahead to travel in the province.
While there are no large-scale conferences happening in the city, McBride said people coming to the city for work continue to book rooms in local hotels and motels, which are seeing an uptick in walk-in traffic. She said actual effects of the pandemic on lodging providers won’t be known until after they file their tax receipts at the end of September.
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond took part in the virtual conference with Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris, as well as provincial Liberal party tourism critics, Doug Clovchok and Michelle Stilwell.
“We know tourism providers have been one of the most impacted sectors as a result of COVID, so these are really difficult times,” said Bond. “Our job is to try to continually raise the issue with the government and we are carrying the message from the north that if we want these businesses to stay afloat, they need help.
“So we’re going to continue to press the government in question period,” she said. “They’ve set aside $1.5 billion for economic recovery and we expect to see them take a pretty hard look at what they can do out of that fund to help tourism operators.
“We have a lot of businesses that will not survive unless they get help and that’s the message I’ll be taking back to Victoria. Tourism is one of the key economic drivers, especially in small communities like McBride and Valemount. It’s hit our region hard and we need our government to respond.”
Clovchok has suggested the province consider suspension of sales tax and hotel tax, as well as stopping collection of employer heath taxes as temporary measures to help tourism stakeholders.
On Thursday, McBride, in collaboration with the City of Prince George, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Prince George, NBCTA, Community Futures Fraser-Fort George, CNC, UNBC, Aboriginal Business Development Centre, Women’s Enterprise Centre and the Prince George Airport Authority, will present the Support PG Initiative at a Burnaby Tourism virtual conference. The report will highlight local businesses and amenities and what they have to offer visitors in their staycation packages.
Bond said it’s even more critical now during the pandemic recovery, with businesses teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, for local residents to support their neighbours.
“Shop local, and we need to get message out now, more than ever,” Bond said. “Small businesses need our help, need our support. You need to find a way to think local.”