A new report from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) released last week claims that the province’s tourism industry will not fully recover from the impact of the pandemic until 2025.
“The holidays are a perfect time for family and friends to discover adventures in Ontario. However, consumers are pinching their wallets as cost-of-living skyrockets, and a recession looms large – weakening the recovery trajectory for Ontario’s tourism industry,” OCC Rocco Rossi president said in a release.
“We need a comprehensive strategy to safeguard the ailing sector and support its sustainable recovery.”
The report’s findings came as no surprise to Michele Saran, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region.
“We always knew that reopening would not equal instant recovery for the tourism industry. We were the first industry impacted by the pandemic, we were the hardest hit and we will be the last to recover. Pre-COVID, tourism was a $36-billion industry in Ontario, generating $5 billion in tax revenues. In 2022 we are achieving approximately 64 per cent of that number as a province.”
The region’s tourism industry took a massive hit, Saran said.
“There was next to no leisure visitation, there were no conventions and there were no sport tournaments. The lowest point was April 2020 when our hotels were running at 18 per cent occupancy.… It was only in spring of 2022 when things started to really improve consistently,” she added.
The pandemic also posed a threat to the St. Jacobs-based Waterloo Central Railway, said operations manager Bob Fallowfield.
“We made a very tough decision not to run, and being a not-for-profit organization, we rely almost exclusively on ticket fares for our survival. So it actually posed an existential threat to our railway.”
Elmeda Weber, owner of Kitchen Kuttings and Elmira Wagon Rides, said it was local support that kept the operations afloat when visitors stayed away.
“Elmira Wagon Rides was shut down over that time. The store stayed open and we didn’t get day-trippers at all, but we did get a lot of local support,” Weber said.
Since business resumed, the Waterloo Central Railway has seen operations costs increase, Fallowfield said.
“The price of diesel fuel directly impacts our railway – you’re looking at $9,000 to fill a tank on a diesel locomotive. [Normally] it’s $7,000 or $6,500.”
While Saran pointed out that airfare costs, as well as food and beverage costs are skyrocketing, the tourism industry in Waterloo Region may not see as big of an impact.
“We are hearing that there is so much pent-up demand for travel that tourism may buck the trend, with people choosing not to forgo that coveted holiday. Waterloo Region is mainly a drive market, so it’s a bit more of a cost-effective getaway for most,” she said.
The report called for a number of actions to be taken that can be taken to help with the recovery, including immigration reform, the extension of staycation tax credits, and helping tourism businesses become more environmentally friendly. All of these recommendations would be helpful, said Saran.
“Our biggest challenge is the labour shortage, so any immigration policies that allow for us to bring in more people to fill open positions would be well-received,” she added.
Beyond the costs of diesel coming down, grants and limiting future restrictions would be the biggest help for the railway, Fallowfield said.
“Any sort of recovery or provincial or federal grants are always appreciated. We certainly don’t want to get closed down again. I think every time the government maximizes the doom and gloom of COVID and the pandemic, I think it sort of stalls any sort of progress we’ve already begun to make,” he said.
As her businesses rely on local support, the return of in-person events have aided in the recovery, Weber said.
“The maple syrup festival [coming back next year] for sure that’ll really help and even just having the [BIA] Moonlight Madness [earlier this month]…people were just ready to get back out and ready to do what they’re used to,” Weber said.
Despite challenges Fallowfield is remaining optimist.
“I know that our organization, our volunteers and our board are super capable people, and we’re well supported by the region. So I am hopeful. We’re not knocking on doors saying, ‘hey, remember us?’ We’ve been blessed by having supportive people in the region and good people within our organization.”