Federal government launches fund to help tourism businesses

OTTAWA — The federal government is offering easy financing for the country’s beleaguered tourism operators, which the minister in charge says should help companies mired in debt.

The announcement brings good news to Greater Victoria’s tourism sector, which continues to see uneven performance as some but not all of its traditional visitor market returns to the capital region.

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The sector has been among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, as international travel has plummeted and domestic travellers are largely staying close to home.

Even as public health ­restrictions ease, Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly says the tourism operators she has spoken with feel some anxiety, as July is almost halfway over.

What the government is ­offering is a mix of non-repayable grants of up to $100,000 or no-interest loans of up to $500,000 to finance capital improvements.

Paul Nursey, Destination Greater Victoria chief executive, welcomes the options for businesses in the tourism sector. “The grant is helpful, of course, [and the] loan is great too,” he said.

It is difficult to say how many businesses will benefit from the financing programs because their financial situations are ­private, he said.

“Most businesses are starting to see some revenue now but it’s truly uneven. Patios are thriving but tour operators are not,” he said.

“It’ll be up to each individual business to assess what might work for them.”

Assistance of $100,000 can “certainly make a difference” for businesses facing fixed costs, insurance payments and other obligations, he said.

Businesses had hoped for a strong summer, but Victoria is still without international visitors. Nursey would love to see a federal announcement by the end of October saying the cruise ships will be permitted to return next year. That would allow that industry to prepare their itineraries.

Nursey is also looking ­forward to the border being ­reopened.

At least one-tenth of the $500 million being rolled out will go to Indigenous tourism operators and organizations for things like workforce training or national projects and be non-repayable grants, responding to funding concerns from that part of the tourism sector.

Joly said the ­government hopes the money helps ­businesses in the sector to avoid a debt spiral that could end in more companies closing.

“This can be a pivotal moment for the tourism sector. We just need to make sure that the businesses survive,” Joly said in an interview.

The budget promised an injection of $1 billion over three years, starting this fiscal year, for a tourism industry trying to rebuild revenues and ready themselves for the day when international travel restrictions ease.

It’s why the funding is being aimed at projects that can help tourism operators, many of which are small or medium-sized businesses, find ways to earn more money during shoulder or off-seasons, or better respond to what travellers are looking for in terms of experience and health standards stemming from COVID-19.

“It’s being able to deal with the risk right now. But we know that there are lessons learned from the pandemic, and being able to stay open. So in that sense, it is a way to have a longer-term solution,” Joly said.

The spectre of an election is casting a shadow over the ministerial spending announcements that have ramped up with the summer heat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested last week his government was in no rush to roll back border restrictions, especially for unvaccinated travellers who he said wouldn’t be allowed in for some time.

And on the issue of how tourism and festival operators might handle the thorny political issue of vaccine passports, Joly said each jurisdiction in the country has a different approach.

In Quebec, she noted, the provincial government’s musing about a validation document may be an incentive to make sure people get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Federally, though, the focus is on putting funding in place for the sector to mitigate health risks when foreign travellers are more easily allowed into the country.

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