16 Island tourism businesses receive grants as province doles out $36 million in funding

Eighty-three tourism businesses, non-profit organizations and tour-bus operators on ­Vancouver Island and elsewhere in B.C. whose bottom lines plunged due to the pandemic are receiving a total of $36.3 million in grants.

Two tiers of funding allowed the largest businesses to apply for up to $1 million, while rural operators and tour-bus operations could apply for up to $500,000.

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“The sector called on government to ­provide grants, not loans, and we worked with tourism-sector leaders to make sure these vital businesses and non-profits can continue to employ residents and draw visitors to attractions throughout B.C.,” Tourism Minister Melanie Mark said Friday.

The money can be used for expenses such as rent, utilities and payroll and to help ramp up as the province reopens and more visitors arrive, Mark said.

The announcement came as B.C.’s tourism sector is preparing to salvage what remains of this year’s tourist season.

Fully vaccinated U.S. visitors will be ­permitted in Canada as of Aug. 9, with other international visitors allowed in the ­following month. But uncertainties remain, such as when the Clipper and Coho ferries running between Victoria and Washington state will be operating again. “We know that the road to recovery for B.C.’s tourism sector will take some time,” said Mark, who called on British Columbians to support tourism ­operators and their employees.

The 16 Vancouver Island organizations receiving grants include Wilson’s Transportation, Butchart Gardens, Craigdarroch ­Castle, the Prince of Whales, Tofino Botanical ­Gardens and Milner Gardens in Qualicum Beach.

Mainland recipients include the Pacific National Exhibition, Science World, the Richmond Night Market and Big White Ski Resort.

Major attractions that would normally receive 75,000 or more visitors annually were eligible for up to $1 million, while rural ­attractions bringing in 15,000 or more visitors could apply for up to $500,000.

Tour-bus operators carrying 30,000-plus passengers a year were also eligible for up to $500,000.

The amount each recipient is receiving has not been revealed.

Ian MacPhee, financial controller at Victoria-based Prince of Whales, said that company’s grant is “significant.” “This is the right amount of money at the right time to get us through the winter, ready to launch for a post-COVID 2021.”

The provincial grant acknowledges the value that whale-watching companies bring to the tourism sector, he said.

Ever since pandemic safety restrictions were imposed in spring 2020, the company has been “nowhere near profitable,” MacPhee said.

Normally the company has 100 employees, including part-time and seasonal, at this time of year, but that’s now down to 40 to 45.

He expects July to be the best month since the pandemic was announced, but anticipates business will be well below 50 per cent of usual levels.

John Wilson, president of Wilson’s Transportation, said he is “happy and thankful” for the grants, which will also benefit other firms in the sector. Cancellations began in January 2020, he said, adding it’s been a long haul just to keep the lights on.

Now that the sector is starting to open up, “pent-up demand is becoming very evident here, both domestically and internationally,” he said.

Wilson is hoping demand will continue throughout the fall, with a longer shoulder season.

Resumption of the Clipper and Coho service would bring in strong numbers immediately, said Wilson, noting revenues have improved to the point where business is down about 75 per cent — from a low point of 95 per cent — compared with 2019. He credits the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament late in June for boosting business.

Wilson’s has about half the number of employees now compared to 2019, he said. Drivers are being brought back as more services are reinstated.

On Friday, the shuttle service between Victoria and Butchart Gardens was relaunched and its hop-on, hop-off sightseeing service is back as well.

Interior wildfires have been sending tourists to Victoria in greater numbers than had been anticipated, said Wilson, adding it takes time to get the fleet ready for service again because many buses have been hibernating for 18 months.

Wilson is hoping the federal government will extend wage and rent subsidies to help the tourism sector get through the winter, saying it will take a long time for it to reach levels that are sustainable.

At Butchart Gardens, spokesperson Kayla Collins said in a statement: “The Butchart Gardens thanks the Province for this grant which will help contribute towards some fixed costs like insurance and property tax.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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