The changes proposed for the tourism industry, as outlined for Woolwich council this week, are counterproductive at best.
While the study led by former provincial finance minister Greg Sorbara – Discovering Ontario: A report on the future of tourism – goes into great detail about ways to boost tourism, the public would be forgiven for seizing on those elements that smack of bloated bureaucracy and tax increases.
With what it calls destination marketing and management organizations, the province is looking to create regional agencies to oversee tourism, dividing Ontario into perhaps 11 regions. The rationale is that tourism could be a much larger economic force if given more priority.
Today, the sector provides $22 billion annually, ranking it seventh among Ontario’s export industries. The report argues that a stronger tourism industry could be a major part of the new economy, setting a goal of doubling receipts by 2020. Overseas visitors are to be a major target, as each spends an average of about $1,200 while in the province.
Tourism also generates employment, providing direct jobs for some 200,000 people. The industry is composed largely of small and medium-sized businesses, the foundation of the economy.
To fund the proposed new layer of bureaucracy and to allow for more marketing, the report recommends the widespread use of destination marketing fees – essentially taxes on hotel accommodations.
Such charges are already commonplace in larger centers; the changes proposed would make them uniform across entire regions, bringing in an estimated $100 million to allow the industry to promote itself.
Coming on the heels of plans to harmonize the GST and provincial sales tax – on tap for next July – destination fees would compound what will be a major increase in the cost of many services that now go untaxed by the province.
Few people inside the tourism industry have reason to celebrate. The rest of us see only a larger tax grab.
It’s hard to see how any of these initiatives will benefit tourism in Waterloo Region, which already faces an uphill battle given its geographic and aesthetic shortcomings.
As it stands, Woolwich Township is one of the few draws in the region. Home to farmers’ markets, St. Jacobs, the Kissing Bridge and some interesting countryside dotted with Mennonite homesteads and roadside produce stands, the north end of the region is prime turf.
Outside of the rural areas, there are few reasons for visitors to come here. Much of the landscape, both natural and manmade, is a serious stumbling block in drawing tourists, whose numbers have been declining for years.
Geographically, there is no significant waterfront, no major stands of forest, no mountains or other such wonders of nature. Of course, there is nothing to be done about that, but it is a reality that must be recognized.
As for the environment we’ve created here, think functional at best, bleak for the most part.
Think of the major reasons tourists cite for choosing destinations – wilderness and eco-tourism (BC, South America, Africa), architecture and history (Europe), entertainment and culture (any major city) – and Waterloo Region by and large does not fit the bill. For short-hop trips, quaint and quirky cuts it for places such as St. Jacobs and Niagara-on-the-Lake, but not so for most of the region.
The provincial plan for tourism will do nothing to change that reality. It does, however, have the ability to increase costs, just another strike against the region.