B.C.’s struggling tourism sector gets $120 million in new funding

B.C. is investing $120 million in new money to support the province’s beleaguered tourism sector, as many operators fight to survive amid a steep drop in revenue due to the pandemic.

Tourism, a mainstay of the Island economy, is one of the sectors hardest-hit by ­COVID-19.

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The industry is waiting to hear details of how $100 million in new money targeted for tourism recovery announced in the 2021-2022 budget will be spent. It includes support for major attractions.

Government officials are working with tourism representatives to “help identify exactly where we need to be investing to support them to get through to the other side to recovery,” Finance Minister Selina Robinson said Tuesday.

The other $20 million in new tourism money is targeted for community destination development grants, to develop new infrastructure such as provincial trails and for airport improvements.

B.C. announced new restrictions on travel this week as part of its “circuit-breaker” efforts to reduce COVID-19 cases. During the five-week period, tourism operators have agreed not to accept any out-of-province or out-of-health authority bookings for overnight stays for non-essential travel.

B.C. has also banned indoor gatherings in restaurants and pubs for the same period.

Robinson said she met last weekend with Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon and they agreed that there need to be more supports for businesses affected by the five-week circuit-breaker extension. “We’re continuing to identify how to best meet the needs of those particular businesses, and there will be more to say in the days ahead around that.”

The finance minister said hospitality and tourism operators can access contingency programs. Late last year, the province announced $68 million in tourism relief and recovery measures

B.C. also allocated another $195 million to continue the small- and medium-sized business recovery grant program, with $100 million aimed at tourism operators.

Amid the uncertainty, Robinson held out hope for a local tourism season this summer.

Walt Judas, chief executive at the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., welcomed the $120 million in new funding. “Particularly the assistance for major anchor attractions, because many of them have not received any funding, either at the federal or provincial level.

“We don’t yet know the details of how much that is going to be or how that will be distributed and we’ll work with governments in the coming weeks to find that out.”

But money announced Tuesday will not be enough to save some businesses, Judas said.

The tourism sector is seeking more details on available support during the latest circuit-breaker plan.

B.C.’s tourism operators are looking at losing more than two-thirds of their revenue due to the pandemic, adding up to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, Judas said.

Operators have been mortgaging their homes, cashing in registered retirement savings plans and selling assets to try to stay afloat, he said.

Even if their businesses survive, many skilled people who would normally work for them may have gone elsewhere, and it will be difficult to get those people back, Judas said. “So, there’s still lots of issues that we have to deal with.”

Bruce Williams, Greater Victoria Chamber chief executive, said the chamber has called for immediate help for large tourism operators that help anchor that sector. “It was good to hear $100 million is being allocated for tourism, attractions, trails and [we] look forward to seeing more details. But we’re hopeful it will go to businesses that desperately need it.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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